Academic journal article New Formations

Nature Post-Nature

Academic journal article New Formations

Nature Post-Nature

Article excerpt

My goal here is to outline a plausible and progressive way to think about nature which takes seriously both non-essentialism, latterly postmodern, and ecocentrism. The result of doing so I call ecopluralism, and I hope it might help to bring about a more sympathetic and informed interest in political ecology on the part of intellectuals generally as well as an intellectually renewed green discourse. A fortiori, that would be one which resists both the temptation of an alliance with postmodernism's reactionary opponents and a facile appropriation by a postmodernism according to which nature can be de-/re-constructed, invented and/or produced at will. Some implications of this approach also have significant potential for rethinking both nature and culture. (Given the extent to which those two concepts are, in 'Western' discourse, integrally interdependent, one cannot seriously be rethought without affecting the other.)


Using a broad but not wholly inaccurate brush, much recent discourse (2) falls into two opposing, or apparently opposing, camps. One could be termed realist (ontologically speaking) or objectivist (epistemologically), and its principal contemporary form is scientific. The other we could call relativist or constructionist respectively, and its most recent renaissance has obviously been under the banners of postmodernism and post-structuralism. I will not take up precious space here trying to define these positions, which it can be assumed will be broadly familiar to most people reading this. And I will exploit the common conflation of ontology and epistemology in practice (the relationship between 'what is' and 'how we know what is' being very like chicken and egg) to use the latter two terms--objectivist and constructionist --to denote these two discourses in both respects.

This opposition, however, is rightly complicated by noting that even allowing for the existence of subtle and vulgar versions of each, most if not all objectivists and constructionists share some significant common ground, insofar as their dominant mode is essentialist and (what is the same thing) monist, pursuing and propagating a presumptively exhaustive explanation of all significant phenomena. Insofar as this is the case, the fact of that explanans being either natural or cultural is of secondary importance.

It seems that both discourses can and frequently do involve what I shall call monist essentialism, and the fact that we could also characterise that mode as a grand narrative is a warning not simply to identify nonessentialism with constructionism, even deconstructionism. (The travesty of the latter as a 'method', which can be taught as such, comes to mind.) In Killing Time, Paul Feyerabend reflected on the point, when consistently held, that 'there are many ways of thinking and living: A pluralism of this kind was once called irrational and expelled from decent society. In the meantime it has become the fashion. This vogue did not make pluralism better or more humane; it made it trivial and, in the hands of its more learned defenders, scholastic'. (3)

The inconsistency of constructionists actually practising essentialism is, of course, relatively glaring, and I am not suggesting a perfect symmetry. Before exploring that difference, however, let us look more closely at what they tend to share. The chief provenance of monist essentialism is, of course, Christian monotheism, including a large measure of Greek philosophical universalism, whose reincarnation as modern scientific metaphysics substituted material 'laws' for spiritual but left the basic modus operandi untouched. It is true that both versions postulate an ontological split between subjective spirit or mind and objective matter--exactly the poles around which constructionists and objectivists respectively have rallied--but these function as 'two vying "monisms"', (4) with both sides promising to eliminate the other pole in its own programme: either the final 'explanation', without any residue, of consciousness by brain physiology (itself putatively reducible to physics via chemistry) or the ultimate deconstruction of physics as 'purely' ideological, that is to say, socially and politically determined. …

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