Part Three – Exercise 3.8: Nature is Culture

What does it mean to say nature is culture? Can there be one without the other? What would it be like?
Look up the term ‘binary opposition’ – does this apply to nature and culture? Write this in three paragraphs – for, against and a conclusion.


In preparation for this argumentation and with deeper exploration of related topics see my preparatory post – click here


The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.

Therefore the sage is guided by what
he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

Tao Te Ching

The dichotomy of Nature and Culture

I will base my argumentation on the notion of culture as the whole comprising society and human behaviour. It consists of knowledge, belief, assumptions, morals, ethics, and law. Basically, the anthropocentric perspective of common life and the world.

The question is what is the opposite? What is left? Out of curiosity I was looking up in a dictionary to see antonyms for culture, and got surprised (Merriam-Webster); barbarianism, barbarism, philistinism. Not really something to build an argumentation, and nature not mentioned.

PRO:  Nature is Culture

“Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs.”

 Thomas Wolfe

Nature is culture, an idealist position where the perception of realities and the physical world is nothing else than a subjective and socially constructed framework. As explained by Structuralists is our representational conception based on relational signifiers. There is no signification beyond. Language is based on signifying and arbitrary words that do not relate to an external objective reality, a reality of nature that cannot be understood without human’s intervention.

Through images, either pictorial or verbal imagery, we represent and present meaning, Meaning is not based on an external idea but, as Derrida described, language precedes meaning (Belsey, 2002, p. 79). Without language, either as speech or transcribed into writing. Even representational imagery is based on signs.

The notion of a representation of an external reality i.e. nature or a truth, is a myth that is based on ideology and hierarchical power relationship (ibid, p. 75).

According to Lacan it the human’s desire derived from dissatisfaction of the gap between the organism and a signifying subject that drives meaning and knowledge (idid, p.59). Signification of the subject is derived from the others (language as signifiers, society). Deleuze uses the term the ‘potential of future becoming’ (idid, p.62) for human’s desire.

Thus, the reality of human condition and the perception of nature is nothing else than a constructed reality in tension, we are constructed by language. What is real is not outside of us. We live inside the representation of reality (Butler, 2002, p.21).

CONS: Nature is the binary opposite of Culture 

“Meaning is always the effect of the trace of the other in the selfsame”

– Jacques Derrida

What and how we represent reality and the external physical world is the human anthropocentric perspective and representational framework. But it is just one framework of reality perception. Based on institutional agreements and facts is an iterative process of signification. The bottom of these representational signifiers is ‘brute facts’, a physical reality that exists even independent of human representation (Searle, 1996).  This is a realist perspective of the world.

Natural science is based on human observation of natural phenomena. Through an empirical approach we can provide explanations of the world as it is connecting with the laws of nature.

The opposite pole is the post-structuralists conception that the very idea of how we observe ‘naturally’ the external world is mediated through constructed signifiers of language.

Thus, as certain facts are based on signs and institutional agreements, we do not have direct access to nature. Nature and the external world is mediated through our representational framework. This constructivist perspective is constantly balancing between the poles of culture and nature. Seeking for truth and objective facts, the human condition is based on uncertainty. We cannot assume or say anything with accuracy. (Belsey, 2002, p.71) We tend between subjectivity and objectivity. We live in the tension between origin and meaning, between self and others. As Derrida articulates, meaning and our idea of nature, is deferred and differed (ibid, p.83) We live in a world of imagination, illusion and delusion, a simulacra that doesn’t allow us to understand nature.

Therefore, we can say that culture is the realm of human condition and knowledge, nature is the realm of the rest. Newer perspectives of speculative realism are trying to overcome the gap and to overcome the anthropocentric philosophy. (Eastham, 2017)

CONCLUSION: Nature and Culture 

Both, nature and culture are parts of human existence. Regardless of the position, realist or idealist or constructivist, the representation of reality through signs is a human condition in the desire for seeking meaning and understanding. We have seen with Post-Structuralism and focus on linguistics that language is based on signifiers and symbols to produce meaning. But a restriction on this approach means to refrain from experiencing nature. The human existence is not constituted by language only. Post-Structuralists want to make us believe so, however, with phenomenological approaches and a re-focus on ‘real experience’ (Deleuze, 1983) human potential and desire for knowledge and meaning goes further than language. A true understanding of human condition (1) brings the representational framework back to nature (Spiekerman ed al, 2017).

The binary opposite of culture and nature is only part of a representational framework. I would rather say that human existence is part of nature, like yīn and yáng are part of whole.  Part of human condition is the self-reflexivity and self-consciousness, at times expressed in self-doubt that made Descartes make his famous expression “Cogito ergo sum” – but it should be rather “Dubito -ergo sum” (I doubt therefore I am). The notion of an uncertain truth alongside the desire to obtain meaning, should not refrain us from living with differences, not in relativist manner or ignorance but with ethical responsibility for the others and nature that sustainability and animal welfare as a sign for nature’s response.

 

Footnotes

(1) Human conditions: living a responsive and participatory mindful life, to be able to discern between good and evil and to have an embodied consciousness of its own existence seem to be key aspects of what it means to be human (Spiekerman ed al, 2017)

Reference:

  • Belsey, C. (2002) Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction, Very short introductions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Butler, C. (2002) Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Chandler, D. (2017) Semiotics: The Basics, The Basics, 3rd edition ed. London; New York: Routledge.
  • Deleuze, G. (1983) ‘Plato and the Simulacrum’, In: October, 27   pp. 45-56.
  • Eastham, B. (2017) ‘OOO! The Return to Objects’, In: Elephant, Summer 2017 (31)  pp. 40-42.
  • Lao Tzu The Tao Te Ching, [online], Available from: http://www.dankalia.com/more/taoteching.pdf [Accessed 31 July 2017].
  • Merriam-Webster (2017) ‘Culture’, Merriam-Webster [online], Available from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/culture [accessed 31 July 2017].
  • Searle, J. R. (1996) The construction of social reality, Penguin philosophy. London: Penguin.
  • Spiekermann, S., Hampson, P., Ess, C. M., Hoff, J., Coeckelbergh, M. and Franck, G. (2017) ‘Wider den Transhumanismus’, In:Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 19 June 2017. [Online] Available from: https://www.nzz.ch/meinung/kommentare/die-gefaehrliche-utopie-der-selbstoptimierung-wider-den-transhumanismus-ld.1301315 [Accessed: 20 June 2017].

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