Reply To: Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature Reply To: Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature

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Markus # Posted on December 20, 2014 at 15:22

Complementary task, Markus Nyström, Carolyn Merchant seminar, March 31

How has Merchant helped you in your understanding of environmental history? (has she?)

What metaphor, or metaphors, do we use in order to understand that which we call nature? This is the central question that I see in Merchant’s work. She argues that the people in the rennaissance had a view on nature as feminine and organic. The world was imagined to be as one body, with interconnected organs and circulations. Even things that we today know (or see as) finite, like metals, were pictured as regenerating over time in the bossom of Mother Earth. Then came the early-modern period, from Bacon and Copernicus, to Newton, Marquid de Condorcet and Godwin, who challanged this view and ultimately lead to a metaphor of nature as a machine. God was now the engineer, his language mathematics, and the world was one of mechanics. The experiment – the prime source of knowledge about nature – helped form an understanding of nature, together with the mathematical language, that nature was not for everyone to understand, it was an elite – and men, not women – who were granted access to this knowledge.

Marchant moreover argues that she sees the emerging of a new metaphor in the 20th century, that of relationship and chaos. From chaos theory to ecology, a new metaphor where humanity cannot, or at least should not, dominate nature through a mechanistic, elitist perspective, but work together with nature to acknowledge the relationship human comunities and non-human communities are in has emerged.

I see many similarities between the rennaissance metaphor – nature as organic and feminine – with the modern ecological perspective. Of course, the “gender” of nature is questioned and criticized (hence ecofeminism), but the idea of interconnectedness between parts, and human dependence on nature, are similar. As she, in her lecture, refers to David Abrams’ book The Spell of the Sensuous, she also argues for a new “language” to understand and reestablish the connection with nature apart from the mathematical and instrumental view on nature. The organic view of the rennaissance correspons quite well with the Gaia perspective, of viewing the entire world “system” as one being.

What I find interesting is that we many times today do not think of our way of understanding nature as a metaphor, this despite the contributions from thinkers like Merchant. Ecology is taken from granted, as truth. Chaos theory – describing the world as inherently unpredictable rather then, like in the mechanistic world view, predictable through experimentation – is pictured as an over-arching framework for understanding the universe, coupled with Einsteins’s theory of relativity. Merchant, on the one hand, makes obvious the power and importance of metaphoric thinking in relation to nature at the same time as she is promoting a new metaphoric for our understanding. In the background here lies, I believe, an epistomological assumption, that the Truth (capital T) about nature is unobtainable to us. Thruth will always come to us through language, through metaphors, and we better argue for and work toward a metaphor which will not lead to ecological collapse.

This is of course an assumption that fits neatly with my own perspective, which is based in discourse analysis and narrative theory. Indeed, I have written about “metaphors” so far, but they are really more like narratives: stories, if one will, of how the world works, with characters and types (“Mother Earth”, men, women, “mankind”, the scientist, the engineer, etcetera), with settings (the laboratory, the subterranean, the heaven, the soil, etcetera), and with plots (what can and should we do with/to/in nature, what is our “purpose”, what is nature’s “purpose”). To use terminology from narrative theory, these “metaphors” about nature can be regarded as ontological “masterplots” or “master narratives” fundamental to our world view.

I think it is important to remember that Merchant blazed some new trail with her book, The Death of Nature, ideas that since then has become rather commonplace, at least within environmentalist and enviromentalist history circles. Ecofeminism, though sometimes fuzzy as to exactly what it refers to in detail, is the general idea that the patriarchal domination of women is linked with the (patriarchal) domination of nature. Linking patriarchy with subjugation of women and the mechanistic (subjugating) metaphor of nature, is incredibly important, I believe. If there is anything I would like to criticize in this regard it is that this thinking is rather aloft and perhaps fail to see the more mundane cultaral connections between masculinity, power and machines, on the one hand, and femininity, subjugation and caring on the other. Indeed, I read this criticism in, different forms, in some of my colleagues reflections, including a critique of “vagueness” and her being too generalizing. Think of all the movies, just as an example, where masculinity is coupled with big/fast/powerful machines, and femininity coupled with caring and beauty. A mundane example from the world of politics could be when politicians speak of, for instance, mining offering “real” jobs (men driving big machines destroying/unearthing nature), in comparison to, for instance, reindeer herding (caring about the reindeer, unobtrusive use of nature). In this sense, since mining is the general topic of my thesis, I believe Merchant’s perspective offers me an interesting opportunity to gender (verb) the disocurse concerning mining and reindeer herding. Indeed, mining, which is an example Merchant herself brings up at a mulitude of occassions, is a typical (if not a stereotypical) male occupation, while caring about the environment – emphasizing caring – is cast in a feminine mold.

One way to face this is to criticize the very idea that caring/femininity is necessarily not as “good” as power/masculinity, and/or that caring and femininity, as well as masculinity and power, necessarily has to go together. This is done extensivly in gender studies and feminist political discourses. Another way would be to buy into this cultural divide and more consciously change the vocabulary: speaking about “fighting” for the environment, for instance, instead of “caring” for the environment. Indeed, one could argue that the tendency to “technologize” the solutions to sustainability problems – to regard sustainability problems as problems that can only be solved through mechanistic thinking, engineering, climate technology, more (patriarchal) science, etcetara – is a strategy to male (verb) the female “caring” for nature. Caring for nature is thus made a masculine thing, as long as you care about it in the form of new machinery, new science, and engineering solutions.

To answer the question I started with, yes, Merchant has helped me in my understanding of environmental history. I may not regard her perspective as the only viable one, but it is important and interesting. She is one of many to both shape my field of study and my own thinking. Hers is a framework which seems to have the structure that what we think is constitutive for how we act – that first comes thought, then action, one-way-street-kind-of-thing – which I doubt is that clear-cut. I believe, rather, that what we do influence what we think – that action and thought goes hand in hand and/or alternates to shape ontology. I also think hinging the worldview on the divide between men and women sometimes is rather narrow, that dichotomies like north/south, west/east, civilized/uncivilized, capital/labor has something to add to the analysis as well. How the entire human species behave in relation to nature was not invented by Francis Bacon’s goose pen – he (and his colleagues) should be regarded as a symbol for a way of thinking AND acting in the world, specific in time, space, class and gender.