Junking the Nature/Culture Divide

That our possessions encode and elicit our identities as persons seems both a commonplace and a fancy observation. For example: notions of ‘taste’ and ‘style,’ in the U.S., Japan, or wherever, reflexively link up practices of adornment and comportment with expressions of self. I love reading fashion blogs for the way they analyze self-presentation through clothing, often with refined understandings of cultural history. Slate compiles several excellent ‘street style’ blogs, many of which are urban micro-ethnographies of what people are up to in places like London or Helsinki. This on-going satire and serious critique of celebrity fashion contains some of the sharpest writing and analysis I have read, whilst also being super funny. Where contemporary usages of ‘style’ seem to me to emphasize creativity and individual expression, ‘taste’ points to perduring differences of a structural sort, most obviously those of class. Could you call these categories a metapragmatics of dress?

Clothing is easy. Here’s another easy one: pharmaceuticals. It’s not that hard to find examples of cultural projects that re-create materially what we human beings are. Pharmaceutical projects and products redefine the horizons of possible human being. Docility in body, docility in mind: fascinating new work is uncovering means through which mood is medicalized and controlled in consequential ways. And the corporate appetite for research subjects demands careful tracking and attention even as we read today that in the U.S. a federal panel is recommending a relaxation of regulations concerning the use of prisoners in pharmaceutical testing.

Accounts of the intermediation of the material and the symbolic or the corporeal and the social can include the lighthearted (tracking the category of ‘formal shorts’ over time) or something a bit more serious (noting disparities in access to life-changing drugs whilst criticizing a medical model that would reduce people to their molecular components). Current critical attention to ‘biopolitics,’ to the social processes and effects of science, to emergent digital worlds, and the like is exploding. We’ve grown accustomed to the claim that ‘nature’ has been superceded as either a symbolic construct grounding human affairs or the ‘world’ in itself ‘before’ our activity on it. Again, these notions can be given robust philosophical genealogies, or they can be illustrated with the rather obvious. Global warming grabs the headlines, but it’s worth remembering that the entire biosphere was also transformed by the atomic testing programs of states like the U.S. over the course of the twentieth century.

After all, we all inhabit worlds that contain and evince the traces of human activity in the past. And I don’t just mean the accumulated junk in my apartment. A visitor to highland New Guinea might be chagrined to learn that the grasslands of its valleys are largely anthropogenic. But once you realize that those valleys also contain traces of the radioactive activity of states on the other side of the planet, scaled observation (my apartment, a valley in New Guinea, the whole atmosphere) is rendered almost irrelevant because nature/culture encompasses all of them. Even Peter Day’s Global Business program today reflects on how people are nothing if not creatures who remake themselves via ‘the tool’ — whether the tool is a grass fire to clear land for gardening or a personal fabrication device.

8 thoughts on “Junking the Nature/Culture Divide

  1. There is not only one nature/culture divide, but rather many: savage/civilized, id/ego, cultivated vs. uncultivated land, instinct vs. free will, etc. I’m not sure we can “junk” all of these in the same way – they each have their own genealogies and are supported by various institutions and interests. It is simply too easy to say that they should all be swept away without thinking about the reasons they continue to persist.

  2. Kerim makes a good point here, one that resonates with me because, just yesterday, I started reading James Ferguson’s Global Shadows and found the following discussion of the concept of “modernity.”

    ….anthropologists, having declared modernization theory defunct and development discourse passé, proudly announce that Africa, notwithstanding all its problems, is in fact just as modern as anyplace else. It just has its own, “alternative” version of modernity.

    …Africans are often puzzled by such claims. Africa’s lackof modernity seems, to many people there, all too palpable in the conditions that surround them–in the bad roads, poor health care, crumbling buildings, and preciously improvised livelihoods that one cannot avoid encountering in the continent’s “less-developed” countries….

    ….a well-meaning anthropological urge to treat modernity as a cultural formation whose different versions may be understood as both coeval and of equal value ends up looking like an evasion of the demands of those who instead see modernity as a privileged and desired socioeconomic condition that is actively contrasted with their own radically unqual way of life.

    Could it be possible that by fetishizing equality and asserting that “cultures” are equal, we find ourselves trapped in a fallacy of misplaced concreteness, ascribing to cultures rights that, properly speaking, belong only to human individuals?

  3. John, I find this view a little disingenuous, and am a little dismayed that it features in Ferguson’s work, as he’s someone I admire. First of all, it conflates the cultural evolutionist/”folk” view of modernity with the way social scientists talk about it, and second it pretends that social scientists see African or Chinese or whatever other modernity as *autonomous*, as if African modernity didn’t suck so much preceisely because of the ways it interconnects with Western modernity. The “hard” form of “other modernities” theory would have to be Lisa Rofel’s “Other Modernities” and Rofel isn’t saying anything even remotely like what Ferguson is saying she must mean. Ferguson mentions

    the demands of those who instead see modernity as a privileged and desired socioeconomic condition that is actively contrasted with their own radically unequal way of life.

    as if that view were right, as if modernity were not profoundly unequal, and as if the “other modernities” folks simply couldn’t see how unequal the situation is on the ground in Africa.

    Very disappointing.

  4. Thank you everyone for your replies to my posts. It’s either really cool or kinda scary — or both — to have people paying attention to one’s sometimes random observations and thoughts. Kerim: I myself am not anti-binary per se. Pace the surrealists, I’m inclined to think preserving the distinction between ego and id might not be a bad idea. One set of distinctions that has been especially productive for anthropology revolves around ‘modernity’ and its ‘others,’ as mentioned by John and oneman. I hope we can have a future discussion about theorizing modernity, which, whether as a sort of strawman target for analytical criticism or as a tried-and-true workhorse of social theory, is always I think at the heart of anthropological questions.

  5. I was not so much arguing that such binaries are “productive” as to say that we must understand why they are so damn hard to get rid of. They seem to stick with us despite our best interests. Moreover, which binaries are important varies a lot from country to country. Long since Gramsci died, Italians are still debating the “Southern Question” (where North/South maps on to urban/rural, traditional/cosmopolitain, etc.) while in the US we tend to see things as Black v. White even though rural whites are often worse off than many African Americans.

    The point being that we can’t ignore the interests of the state in preserving certain dichotomies. One of the interesting things Tsing did in Friction was to look at how natural/non-natural had been shaped by the history of Indonesia. I wasn’t particularly satisfied with her history, but it did at least demonstrate that the term had different resonances there than it does in the United States.

    It IS important to make it clear that their “nature” is shaped by global forces. Television still promotes the myth of the isolated savage untouched by civilization, and nuclear testing is a great example of how we can begin to tear apart such myths. But I worry about how much time Anthropologists spend “debunking” such assumptions to little avail. It seems to me that we need to spend more time analyzing why these myths are so powerful (and persistant) in the first place.

  6. bq. Could it be possible that by fetishizing equality and asserting that “cultures” are equal, we find ourselves trapped in a fallacy of misplaced concreteness, ascribing to cultures rights that, properly speaking, belong only to human individuals?

    Who decides what is “proper” here? Don’t all “rights” exist as soemthing we agree to recognize (or fight about)?

    (Doesn’t mean I’m not for ’em; just means I don’t think god or reason or whatever is on my side.)

  7. Doesn’t mean I’m not for ‘em; just means I don’t think god or reason or whatever is on my side.

    What, then, does it mean to say that you’re for them? Just another sentimental consumer choice? Like the mythical philistine standing in front of the painting and saying, “I know what I like”?


    How, then, do you defend them? Without resort to force?

    Allow me to recommend the discussion of necessary frameworks in Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self and C.Wright Mills on the “Vocabulary of Motives.” I recall an essay in which Mills argues that if two people cannot agree on the words they use to describe motivation, persuasion is reduced to coercion. Kind of like George Bush “spreading democracy.”

  8. Well, that shut things down…

    To get back to the point of “singular modernity” (Marxist argument) vs. “alternative modernities” (Nietzschean argument)…

    I haven’t read the Global Shadows book yet. I’m sure I will like it. But I’m a little less eager to read it after seeing this, because I really hope it does more than just bang the drum of “modernity = global wealth appropriation” to beat down the other side who identify modernity with less tangibly “instrumental” attitudes, like contemporaneity or hipness.

    This impasse or antimony is far too interesting to me to waste more time reading rehashings of Dipesh Chakrabarty vs. Timothy Mitchell, which was a great match but ended in a 2-2 draw ages ago…

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