One would not be risking much to wager that mildly curious newcomers to the Anthropoetics website who feel anxiety about climate change and global warming, the razing of rainforests, the dying of coral reefs, the horrors of factory farming, the mountain-top mining in West Virginia (see the documentary Burning the Future) and the grotesqueries of fracking (see the documentary Gasland), not to mention the myriad other indicators of our superspecies’ conspicuously successful creativity on the planet, would not last long as browsers there. Ecosensitive types, never shy about the self-righteous occupation of moral high grounds anyway, would before long come across remarks implying an indifference to causes “ecological” and environmental, an indifference almost equivalent to the massive indifference of Nature itself to humankind. Such types, defenders of Nature itself, would without hesitation click off the page and not come back anytime soon. I would prefer that environmentally-minded people exercise any small curiosity they feel about GA until they get exhausted by the stimulating rigour of its ideas, not repelled by unfashionable remarks about, say, the undecidable quality of speculations about the causes of global warming. And so I try out some thoughts along the lines of GA Environmentalism.
I do not see any necessary conflict between a “concern for the environment” and an interest in generative anthropology. On the contrary, I believe generative anthropology provides the strongest basis for an environmental thinking that combines human self-respect with a non-hypocritical approach to the tremendous problems facing the human community as it faces “the” ecological crisis. The problems are real ones. One thing I will say is that to preserve one’s sanity, it is probably best to approach such problems one at a time. There is a susceptibility to paralysis and despair when one starts learning about changes in the natural world, the problems for humans and other animals and ecosystems alike. There is at the very least the simple problem of numbers—there are so many of us. Just too many of us: when one takes Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere, one almost finds understandable the formation of Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. (You may google them.)
The VHEM brings me to a first line in the sand that I believe generative anthropology does draw and that it would be impossible to cross without abandoning the part of the Nevil Shute beach that GA has claimed. The line is that of human self-respect. An environmentalism that entails the denial of human self-respect cannot follow from the originary hypothesis; what we need is an environmentalism unashamed to own the glory and the horror of being human. We must fight the horror and celebrate the glory, but they “go together”—results of the excess for good and evil that the power of (human, scenic) representation brings into the cosmos. We do not need to go on about how intelligent we are, as the cognitive scientists and reductionist Darwinians do, including especially the many researchers making careers trying to prove that human language is just a sophisticated form of animal signalling, somehow. I do not think we are that terribly intelligent. We are just weird because we live on scenes of representation. Dogs are as intelligent as they need to be, just as crows and salmon are as intelligent as they need to be. Our purported intelligence cannot be the basis of our self-respect. Only self-knowledge of our paradoxical situation in the cosmos can give us such a basis. We need to understand why we have our particular form of intelligence, namely, language.
Denials of human self-respect are indulged by more than one contributor to The Eco-criticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (U Georgia P, 1996). Glotfelty went on to become a founding officer of ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, now a thriving association with gigantic annual conferences. Here is the best example, from SueEllen Campbell in “The Land and Language of Desire: Where Deep Ecology and Post-structuralism Meet”: “But the most important challenge to traditional hierarchies in ecology is the concept of biocentrism—the conviction that humans are neither better nor worse than other creatures (animals, plants, bacteria, rocks, rivers) but simply equal to everything else in the world” (128). Is it really a lesson we need to teach our children well that they (the kids) are neither better nor worse than rocks or bacteria? “Better” by whose judgment? “Worse” by what measure? We have here an ecocritical thinker who has thought little about the fundamental anthropological category of value; or perhaps deep ecology expels anthropology in the first place.
For an originary thinker, the category of value emerges in the cosmos only when humans as language-using animals begin to measure and compare parts of the natural objects they consume on ritual scenes, having acquired language, which makes them likewise unique animals in the history of the planet, if not the cosmos. Before that point in cosmic time at which humans began using language on ritual scenes, maybe God was doing some valuing of Creation, but if so, God was doing it according to the Divine Ownership alone… rather lonely, waiting for humankind to emerge according to plan so the sinful consuming and the punishing disasters and the fraught covenanting could get underway. (God gets my quip and minds not, I believe.) Even the smartest animals (whales, dolphins, chimpanzees, my West Highland terrier) have never been seen measuring their portions of food and naming the portions’ values. The only place it happens in Nature (valuing) is on the scenes of human exchange, for example, here between you and me, kind reader. Human self-respect begins when we think about where we are—on the human scene. Human self-respect begins with recognizing the natural fact that we alone in nature “value” things, that human animals alone perform the signifying act of assigning values to things situated on scenes of exchange. Neither better nor worse than rocks or bacteria. Imagine a wedding ceremony or a first erotic encounter at the time of which one human says to the other: Though I do not value you more than rivers or plants, I promise to love you til death do us part. One longs for the wisdom of a John Stuart Mill, of the type conveyed in his essay “Nature.” Writing against a debased romanticism of which the slogan was “follow Nature!” Mill at least understood the valueless indifference of Nature and its utter vacuity as a source for values.
A second line in the sand that GA would draw, I believe, is one that seeks to guide us away from the hypocrisy and self-contradiction that follow from a failure to think minimally about another anthropological fundamental: consumption. We all consume, but according to much environmental discourse, we should all feel bad about consuming. Consumer society is bad: period. I always wonder what we are expected to replace it with: non-consumer society? Are we all to become Tibetan monks or Jainists? Or become card-carrying members of the VHEM?
It is not simply elasticizing the concept to insist that humans have always been consumers; it is a fact, perhaps not a simple one, but a fact. In contemporary political discourse with an ecological perspective, there is perhaps no word more abused by overwork than “consumption.” Rene Girard used to remark on the doubleness of discrimination: discriminating against (bad), discriminating between (good). Likewise, the economists insist consumption is good—and they are correct. At the very least, I hope one would concede that there is good consumption, innocent by necessity. If we all stopped consuming tomorrow, the system would crash and the economy collapse; sellers need buyers, producers need consumers, and people need food, clothes, and shelter. Meanwhile, the ecologists insist that consumption is bad—and they are correct. All consumption “destroys” nature: the big fish eat the little ones, not my problem, get me some (from the Radiohead song). At its best, consumption nowadays makes us feel bad by shading into the kind corrupted by luxury. Rich people may well be miserable; the earnest shopper may frequently be disappointed. I recall the despairing cry of a mother of a friend from my college years, lamenting the impossible dream of successful Christmas shopping: There is something wrong with everything you buy! She meant both that her daughter would not like the jeans she had assiduously hunted down in the obnoxious local mall and that the jeans would probably be defective in workmanship and overpriced anyway. Furthermore, the throwaway toy and the major appliance manufactured for planned obsolescence do maybe need to be replaced by “alternatives” (a word understandably loved in environmental discourse—liberal democracy must have alternatives): smart shoppers might ask about the probability of a purchase enduring long enough to acquire sentimental value. That way, we could begin to step gingerly beyond “hedonistic self-indulgence.” There is no virtue in throwing money away on junk.
On the other hand, when I hear the person with the million-dollar house and the tenure-track job and the SUV denouncing the “excess” of our horrible consumer society, I want to quote King Lear standing up to his wicked daughters, who torment him by taking his horses away:
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. (2.4.259-262)
The truth is that we (humans) know natural objects only by consuming them on scenes of representation—which means discovering/inventing the objects as significant centers, and then destroying them—taking them apart, studying them, analysing them, and ingesting them or remaking them as artifact, shelter, tool. The paradoxical truth is that the only “Nature” we know is the nature we “consume” or interfere with, modify, make a home of, at the very least observe (like the quantum physicist disturbing the particles). There is no getting around the center of the scene of representation as our access to Nature, or, less confusingly, to natural objects. Any human meal is a whole series of thoughtful, mindful, representation-saturated interferences in nature. We might wish we could shed linguistic consciousness as snakes shed their skins and somehow “experience” objects directly, “immediately,” as animals do or the expert denizens of nudist colonies splashing in the streams of free love try to do. But as plain, flat humans our glory like our horror is on the scene where we know what we are doing when we eat, because we represent and name the things we eat. Likewise, we name and know the materials we make into things we wear, and we name and know the materials (wood, bark, stone, rubber) we rip from the natural world and bang up into huts and houses, boats and buildings. But not (by contrast) the lion. The lion rips up the fallen zebra, chews its chest slowly as it bleeds to death, but the lion feels no guilt and merits no moral condemnation because it has no scene of representation and owes nothing to any shared Center of the scene that all lions acknowledge in ritual and linguistic practice. We are the only animals who consume good objects of nature scenically, gathered around fires or pots or tables or countertops. Our consumption transcends consumption because it re-presents consumption, because our consumption is something we think about. No other creature in the environment does it the way we do. We must begin with what we are and how we do things. We know that we consume because we represent to ourselves that which we consume.
An environmental discourse animated by the originary hypothesis might take this, I suggest, as slogan and principle: we consume only that which we have first represented; and if we have represented it, then its value is created on the scene of human exchange. “Nature” is not a pre-made, sacred, finite pie that we are cutting up. “Nature” is that which we cut up in the first place to make the pie Nature did not make. Nature does not make pies for us. We are so used to thinking about humankind-Nature relation on the model of the subject–object axis of metaphysical philosophy, that we have lost the common (religious) sense of communal anthropological wisdom, which grasps that “Nature” does not come to us directly but only by way of the mediations of scenic (ritual) centers, shared and inherited centers of cultural authority and practice. Why has post-structuralism not taught us this? Because it goes on endlessly about mediation, all the while denying agency in ever more convoluted baroque ways, so the mediations are everywhere but the intentional centers are nowhere. Not terribly helpful if we wish to get ourselves situated in pro-environmental discourse.
That our experience of nature is mediated by figures on the scenic center is to some extent a “primitive” truth that the Rousseau-influenced environmental politicians should not find difficult to grasp. We used to call the imagined agent at this scenic center God, or the Creator. Now what do we call it? Nobody knows. Modern science, given its bias toward materialist reductionism that tries to explain away linguistic consciousness as an epiphenomenon of the evolved “body” or of the big, over-programmed accidentally-evolved human brain, is no help here. Science is in no way going to help human thinkers raise their environmental moral consciousness. It provides lots of horrifying statistics and misery-inspiring facts to deflate our hope in the historical future. But it will not help, because modern science for the most part desacralizes Nature (only the work of the likes of Stuart Kaufmann or Terence Deacon in Incomplete Nature moves in the other direction). Originary thinking is far richer than modern science in resources to make us resituate ourselves in the natural world as humans grateful for the objects we (must) consume. To express gratitude is to perform a valuation. The self-knowledge the originary hypothesis gives us to help understand ourselves in cosmic history is the self-knowledge we need to stop burying our heads ostrich-like in the sand of the denial of human weirdness.
Originary thinking, I believe, can help us approach “Nature” this way: we can own up to the reality that whatever is given to us in Nature and by Nature is really given to us by other humans first. We are fed as babies by our parents. We are given tools and objects by other people. We are the species the least dependent on “Nature” and the most dependent on each other—we are the supersocial species. This should be obvious: look at our cities, our networks of exchange, our marvels of technology. When are we going to stop seeing all this manifest evidence of our difference from other living things as an obstacle to our relationship to Nature and start seeing it as the model of our relationship to Nature? The scenicity of human access to Nature is a very hard truth for standard environmental discourse to bear; it wants us to hate ourselves and each other (bad technological overconsuming violent human!! bad, bad, bad!) and love Nature first. Such discourse has things the wrong way around.
We will only start loving Nature if we learn to love each other again, rather in the way some of us used to believe that a caring Creator God loved us and helped us learn to love one another. Modern science has beaten God up and kicked him out of the cosmos without a meal ticket, but let us not absurdly rush to God’s rescue. The point is that for humans, there is no “Nature” that is not mediated by the sacred center, or, if you like, by representation, first: that is what it means to be and do as a human, on the scene of representation, where we represent things in language before consuming them. A little reflection shows how easy it is to grasp this: parents talk as they feed children, farmers use their names and knowledge as they work the land, fishermen name the waves and the weather as they plumb the oceans, naturalists represent as experts when they observe and preserve images of marvels in the wild, scientists study in symbolic systems the natural events that mediate climate change. Obviously, one might say. But is it obvious? Has it not become the very thing so studiously, strangely, systematically overlooked in standard environmentalist discourse? The danger of environmentalist discourse given to victimary stances is its tendency to induce again and again a forgetfulness of the reality not that humans are “part” of nature (that synecdoche has been repeated so often it numbs the mind), but that the Nature of which we are part can be known only as the object of human intention on scenes of representation. There is no Nature for humans that humans have not intended in the first place. We have never known and we will never know “the environment” directly. So why, pray tell, do we keep speaking as if we have so known it and can so know it—the environment, the environment, the environment. We repeat the phrase as if it will appear by virtue of our incantations, not unlike a pagan God. But it will not so appear. Sorry.
The self-hating strain in environmentalist discourse (Nature is our Victim and we are its persecutors and exploiters) insists that we must be ashamed of our having been consumers from the beginning. As an originary thinker, I would suggest that we would do better for ourselves and “the environment” to stop being ashamed of taking what we need. I would say, as a joyful originary thinker bursting equally with human self-respect and love for the bazillions of natural objects we have learned to represent and to consume, let us take joy in consuming what we need; but let us take more of that joy first, because if we do so, we will consume less. It is not consumption itself that is “bad.” It is the loneliness of the person eating alone that is bad. It is the delusion that the (natural, consumed) object alone itself satisfies, rather than the object represented and shared on the scene, and thus valued and satisfying precisely because valued, that is bad. It is mindless, anti-social, thoughtless, unmeasured consumption that is bad. I am convinced that so-called “overconsumption” is a result less of consuming too much than of thinking too little about what one consumes and consuming in isolation. Overconsumption is the result of failing to represent together the object before consuming it.There is something to be said for saying grace—it is not self-advertising piety, but self-situating humility; it slows us down, makes us pause, restores our originary gratitude to the shared center. Human consumption has, from the origin of ritual scenes, involved “excess” in the sense that alone among animals we are aware because we represent in language the things we consume. That awareness is the source of the excess, the sense and meaning of “excess” itself. There is no “excess” in nature. There is only “excess” where humans say there is, having measured it and represented it. So if we are eating too much, we can tell each other so and cut down or cut back. But we will be telling each other that. Nature tells us nothing. We read the signs. We are the ones who read the signs of our excess.
The respect we owe Nature is in the first place the respect that we owe each other as humans. Our humanity comes first, because we cannot help but know Nature only as humans know it—in a way that is to know Nature differently from the way all other animals know, or perhaps I should say, experience it. Other animals have sensations, perceptions, emotions, memories. None have scenes of representation structured as peripheries and sacred centers. None have language as we have it: the very language that by making us supposedly super-intelligent has “caused” the ecological crisis. But hating ourselves and loving “Nature” gets us nowhere, because we must be ourselves as humans first if we want to “get” Nature, get access to natural objects. And that must entail owning up to the manifest reality of our bizarre unlikeness in the universe, or Creation. I have insisted on taking joy in pro-social consumption, gambling on the supposition that we consume less when we represent more, because we are happier when we are sharing and miserable when we are not sharing.
For my third and final gesture, let me venture a remark that reverses direction and tries to put “Nature” first, in a shifty way. My passion for originary thinking comes from my conviction that it minimizes the difference between believer and nonbeliever in God, and that it succeeds in creating a shared scene in which “science” or the truth of reason and “religion” or the truth of “faith” can co-operate dynamically. The remark I wish to venture: For human beings who use language, natural objects are always already at least a little bit sacred. To grasp originary thinking is to grasp this ecological reality. It has occurred to me that utilitarian discourse, for example, the type advocated by Peter Singer (whose work I respect) in his attempt to get us thinking about the interests of sentient animals, has nothing on old-fashioned faith in a Creator who commands our reverence and respect for animals when it comes to nudging contemporary industrialized humans toward compassion for animals. Even Peter Singer admits that sometimes we need to torture chimpanzees to get a cure for disease X. In utilitarianism, there is no originary moral basis for concern for animals. In generative anthropology, insofar as the natural object can function as a sign and substitute for the central locus of the scene of representation conceived as a Being (God), there is—yes, there is—a space for saying we owe that sacrificed chimpanzee something that the calculation of costs and benefits can never measure. We owe that chimpanzee an infinite debt, because that chimpanzee occupies the space of a paradoxical sacred center that utilitarian discourse cannot even begin to think. The great falsehood of modern science (utilitarianism included) is to blithely command us to treat natural objects as just that, objects, objects and nothing but and nothing more, objects unmediated by the scenic centers of human representation.
I believe generative anthropology encourages our questioning of such reductions. When I think of the most miserable factory farmed chicken imaginable or the moths I happily swat in my pantry, I think scenically that they and other natural objects are never just nothing but natural objects. Because the natural object is an object of my representation, and because I share that representation with other humans, and because that representation points to an irreducibly shared (ultimately immaterial or “spiritual”) scenic center, the object’s value is irreducibly intersubjective and its value cannot be measured by the quantitative methods of natural science alone. In other words, originary anthropology refuses to be reduced to cosmology. Therefore, the scenic center properly grasped has the capacity to sacralise anew each possible object in Nature, of nature. Our place in Nature has never been just to “exploit” the goods it gives us; our place has always been likewise to sacralize and value the goods that it gives us. But modern science knows nothing of such value. Modern science objectifies. By contrast, when meditating on the originary scene, we transform natural objects into objects of specifically human intention. They come to exist in a special way for us as signs in our human minds, signs in our shared imaginary worlds, values in our systems of economic exchange, symbols in our networks of belief.
From Laplace and Darwin to Dawkins and Dennett, the materialist-reductionist strain in science has tried both to explain away our unlikeness in the natural world and to explain (away) all the mysteries in Nature itself. But a mystery by definition withholds itself—like the personhood of the Being at the sacred center, anything we re-present in language withholds itself, because the word intends the object but the object is not the word. The mystery of language entails the mysterious value of all natural objects, including everything we can think about. It is true that mysteries should not be multiplied beyond necessity. But it also true that some mysteries remain, and language (the paradox of the human) cannot be explained away. The center of the human scene was and is at least minimally sacred (if and when it is utterly desacralized, well then, there we will meet the nice meaningless end of humankind); therefore, any natural object that can occupy the center of that scene can be at least minimally sacred.
For originary thinking, the environment is not the environment, horizontal, mute, at once stubbornly unspeaking and facelessly demanding. On the contrary, every natural object I put in the center of a scene of representation, from the bananas and cream in my snack bowl to the whole planet as a globe viewed from a mind-boggling satellite in outer space, remains subject to the paradox that has always been present from the origin of the human: because we cannot both have all of it all at once, dear interlocutor, we must find a way to represent it as transcendent (first) before trying to get to it as immanent object of consumption (second). That is how we learn to share. We can share the representation of Nature in a way can never share Nature itself; what is more, we have been doing such sharing all the time ever since the beginning of human community. We could always share better and more, but societies that do not share, die, and we are not dead yet, so we must be doing something right. Hope is there.
If we want to re-learn how to love the natural world, then we should re-learn how to love one another, alone on the planet anxious about the ecological problems it has. The poisoned beluga whales in the St. Lawrence river, the laboratory chimpanzees on the UBC campus, the unowned dogs and cats in cages at your local animal shelter—they suffer. We may feel shame at what we (others) (we) have done to hurt them. But we should not feel shame at what we can do to help them, and we alone can help them. We belong to Nature no more and no less than Nature belongs to us (thank God). There is at least as much glory in our ecological situation as there is horror; I believe, ultimately, more glory than horror. Animals do not think glory or horror. But we do. Our ability to help ourselves—by helping animals and plants to flourish—is something we should believe in, something that follows from the originary hypothesis itself. As for the rocks and the bacteria, I expect they will be fine on their own. They will not resent our indifference. They understand that we have enough environmental business to worry about for now.
Time to check out the VHEM website…. competition for the Anthropoetics website! Speaking of which, why not come join us at UCLA for GASC VII on June 27-30th?