Wolfe on the Human-Nature Relationship


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When Ross Wolfe asked if he could post an essay on the Digital Dialogue in honor of Earth Day, I was hesitant. Given his past participation on the blog under the pseudonym, Vox_Dei, I was not sure he was serious about engaging in a respectful, critical discussion of the central philosophical concerns of this blog.

Having read the article he proposed to post, however, I have come to believe that Ross is very much concerned to engage in a serious, critical discussion of the important question of the relationship between human-beings and nature. One of the things I most appreciate about his essay is the historical background he offers; it is designed to uncover the historical and social nature of the human-nature relationship.  The question of how to properly understand the manner and extent to which human-being and natural being belong together is a central concern of my recent book, Aristotle on the Nature of Truth. Ross's take is decidedly Marxist, and it offers a number of important points for us to consider.

Here is a bit about Ross's background:

Ross Wolfe is a graduate student in Soviet history at the University of Chicago, currently living in New York while doing research for his Master's thesis. In 2008, Ross graduated from Penn State University with a Bachelor's degree in both History and Philosophy. In December 2009, he became anonymously involved with Dr. Long's Digital Dialogue blog under the handle of "vox_dei." His main focus in research right now is on the early Soviet architectural avant-garde, but he is also interested in Marxism, critical theory, and their application to political issues past and present.

I invite you to consider what Ross Wolfe has to say below:

In light of the recent celebration of Earth Day, I have reposted an essay I wrote about a month ago, entitled "Man and Nature." With recent events in Japan and images of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami still fresh in our minds, it seems appropriate to revisit the old problem of humanity's relationship to nature. "Man and Nature" seeks to address this issue from a perspective that is clearly informed by the critical tradition of political Marxism and the Frankfurt School. It is divided into four sections, each of which builds on the results of those that precede it. 

The first section examines the shifting historical conception of "Nature" in society, analyzing the different ways in which the natural world has been understood down through the ages. From the most primitive societies to the Enlightenment, from the Romantics to the age of industrialism, all the way down to the present-day environmental movement, I attempt to trace the various ways in which Nature has manifested itself to society. From this, I deduce that Nature cannot be conceived merely as a self-enclosed entity, a Kantian Ding-an-Sich. Rather, it must be considered also as an historically variable object, the views of which tend to reflect the ideological superstructures of the age in which it is being contemplated. The challenge, then, is to conceive Nature as a fundamentally social problem

Section two covers the Marxist theory of man's alienation from nature under capitalism. It shows how the ever-increasing mediation of commodity society puts humanity at a further and further remove from the natural world, with which it was once so familiar. From Marx's early investigation of the corrosion of the organic relationships that existed in previous societies in his Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, I proceed to Georg Lukács' theorization of the creation of a virtual "second nature" out of a reification of society as it presently exists. Combining this with Marx's more mature critique of commodity fetishism in Capital, the question is posed: To what extent do the alterations and transformations in the constitution of society as "second nature" affect the original "first nature" out which the second was conceived? Dovetailing with the problem that with which we concluded the first section, it is further asked to what extent a radical social transformation (of "second nature") might also entail a radical transformation of the natural world. 

In section three of the essay, I explore the binary opposition of Nature and Culture through the lens of the structuralist anthropology of Lévi-Strauss. It also touches on the various ways in which the antithesis between the two terms has been denied, deconstructed, and dissolved by trying to assimilate one term to the other. In the end, it concludes that the opposition must be affirmed as an historical reality, though the antithesis must not be thought to be unbridgeable or indissoluble. The synchronic dialectical approach of structuralist linguistics and anthropology fails to capture the historical dimension of the opposition. It cannot recognize that this is an opposition that has come into being, and could just as easily pass into nothing. The diachronic dialectical approach of historical materialism is able to comprehend the problem as one which arose out of very definite historical conditions, and which has been exacerbated to such an extent under capitalism that it first presents itself as a problem to humanity. 

Finally, the fourth section of the essay undertakes a radical Marxist critique of the contemporary environmental movement. It breaks the Green movement into its main constituent parts so as to focus on each element in its individuality, as well as draw overarching themes that unite them all. It starts with a critical examination of the "go organic" and "buy fresh, buy local" locavore and urban agriculturalist tendencies, and then moves on to an analysis of the reification of Nature inherent in the deep ecology and permaculture currents. From there, the lifestyle politics of veganism, freeganism, and raw foodism is subjected to a devastating critique, topped off by a fierce polemic against the ecofeminist position. 

After taking a look at some of the more militant strains of eco-activism in the Green anarchist and anarcho-primitivist movements, the essay offers a final section assessing the results of the critique and exploring the prospects for a Marxist alternative. It concludes that the radical social transformation called for by Marxism must simultaneously involve a radical transformation of nature as it presently exists. Nature should not be seen as some sort of inviolable entity to be left untouched by human instrumentalization, but should rather come to be seen as an extension of the will of mankind. Only in this way can the alienation between man and nature be finally overcome. 

You can read the full essay on my blog, the charnal-house. Any comments or criticisms would be welcome, as well as any sort of feedback, positive or negative.

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