Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions
by Adam Robbert
Here I am discussing Michael Carolan’s paper Society, Biology, and Ecology: Bringing Nature Back Into Sociology’s Disciplinary Narrative Through Critical Realism. In Carolan’s work we find six common problems in thinking Nature-Culture interactions that I would like to review here. They are: 1) the failure to account for asymmetries between “nature” and “culture,” 2) the lack of detail in describing interactions across domains, 3) the omission of temporal and coevolutionary dynamics, 4) a poor accounting for multiple definitions of “nature,” 5) a reliance on naïve realism, and 6) an inability to discuss the ontological power of “things.”
All six points are compelling and worth further unpacking. In the following essay I have taken up each point individually both by considering some of Carolan’s insights and criticisms, and adding by some of my own thoughts - with the particular aim of bringing Carolan’s critical realism into dialogue with actor-network theory and ecological economics. Each item can be read independently, but if you can get through all six, I think you will find that they hang together fairly tightly (note: I have grouped the last two together into one section below, and all quotes are taken in reference to the above paper).
1) Nature-Culture discourses fail to account for the ontological asymmetry between the two domains.
As the title of Carolan’s paper implies, his work is heavily influenced by Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism. Let us begin then with a few general comments on Bhaskar’s philosophy to help situate Carolan’s perspective. First, for Bhaskar any act of knowledge making makes sense only in the context of an independently existing material reality (p. 396). Second, a critical piece of Bhaskar’s philosophy rests on the acknowledgement that while there is a gap between the world and our knowledge of the world, to then reduce ontology to epistemology is what he terms an “epistemic fallacy.” Third, Bhaskar’s work can be called a “transcendental realism,” based on an “ontological stratification” of a distinct and multileveled reality (p. 396). Fourth, “rootedness” and “emergence” are central concepts in Bhaskar’s ontology. As the names would imply, each strata of reality are rooted in and emerge from the others, but are also not reducible to any of those constitutive levels — causality moves both up and down in hierarchies of complexity. In this way Bhaskar forwards a nonreductionist and dynamic, multileveled materialism. Carolan clarifies:
For now, I simply want to make clear that the acknowledgement of rootedness — particularly of sociocultural phenomena — need not send us headlong into the thralls of biological reductionism, as long as that rootedness is predicated on a reality that is stratified, emergent, and open to dynamic tendencies from both “above” and “below.” Strata are not ontological islands onto themselves, independent and closed from the tendencies that surround (but do not interpenetrate) their spheres of existence (p. 397-398).
Viewing nature and culture as distinct, but stratified, emergent, and interpenetrating domains, affords us the opportunity to consider Carolan’s insights on “aysmmetry.” The asymmetry we are pointing to here refers to the troublesome fact that “nature” and “culture” cannot, despite being ontologically similar, be collapsed into one another by instead are mutually constituting. Thus we are confronted with a problem, if nature and culture are said to be mutually constituting, what do we lose by collapsing each term into a relation with the other? Carolan offers two insights here: 1) physical environments can exist without social environments, but not the reverse. 2) approaching the problem from the other direction, there can be no knowledge of a priori physical environments without the emergence of an already existing social space. Thus social realities are “rooted” in and “emerge” from biophysical world spaces. More importantly, however, despite the ontological priority that physical environments have temporally over social ones, we must nevertheless acknowledge that causality between the two domains is recursive.
The problem of asymmetry is an important since it centers the need to stay attentive to the particular forces that are in play in any given assemblage of actors. The dichotomy “nature-culture” can make it seem, if we are not actively thinking, that the split is 50/50 and that each domain provides half of a neatly interacting dialectic – - which is precisely why the asymmetry needs to be revealed and cracked. The pandemonium of events and agencies that are interacting can be better appreciated once we incorporate Carolan’s multileveled, rooted system of emergence. This pandemonium, however, presents us with new problems, and leads us directly into point #2.
2) Little attention is paid to “how” interactions occur; only that interactions do occur.
Here Carolan is critical of a few of Bruno Latour’s contributions in thinking nature-culture distinctions. Carolan argues that Latour’s “hybrid” obfuscates the particularities of certain nature-culture interactions. Carolan writes:
Yet as I detail, not all hybrids are the same – for example, the Midwestern corn field, as a sociobiophysical effect, is not the same, quantitatively or qualitatively speaking, as unstable genomes because of hazard levels of ambient radiation. In short, once we begin to see these two realms as being ontologically inseparable…we lose analytic force to distinguish between different types of hybridity (p. 394).
Carolan’s point above is well taken: if we can’t distinguish between types of hybridity than we are left a homogenous mess of activity — perhaps not so bad in and of itself, but certainly not a good place to generate a practice of science from. In point #1 Carolan showed that positing nature and culture as mutually constitutive is not adequate because, through the production of such a binary, it does not become clear enough how particular modes of interaction between elements of nature and culture unfold. In point # 2, then, he highlights that pointing to the hybrid nature of cornfields and genomes is only a beginning, not a discursive goal. However, I don’t think Latour would disagree with this statement and I actually think that Latour’s point is precisely the one Carolan is making.
Hybrids, which don’t necessarily need to exist for Latour, are a way of pointing to the fact that nature and culture have been composed as a priori realms before a due process of their constitution was initiated. In other words, for an entity to be “hybrid” we must already have assumed that two distinct and pure domains are being intermixed, producing not a pure breed, but a natural-cultural chimera. The distinction between “nature” and “culture” could have emerged otherwise, and one should follow the actors that construct such specific networks in action in order to ascertain the validity of positing such domains.
Following specific actors is important because if we do not assess the construction of the categories by which we must think epistemologically and relate ontologically, we are forced to consider “nature” and “culture” as fixed domains within which we must assign location to our various foci of research (e.g.,genes are natural, language is cultural, sex is natural, but gender is cultural etc). Without engaging in this process one is not allowed to compose nature and culture differently — they become closed abstract systems to which we must force specific actors or events into. Some helpful questions to ask in this regard are: Is it clear what is nature? Is it clear what is culture? Are the relationships between them understood? The answer to all three I think is clearly “no.” Thus we ought to follow Latour in rethinking the environments within which we compose entities (a composition which always includes the agency of nonhumans). Once composed these environments then later become the domains within which we assigns homes for the entities we study
Thus for Latour one of the primary tasks of the sciences — and the goal of democracy — is precisely not to “black box” any entity, paradigm, environment, or belief system so as to avoid “short circuiting” the process of composing a democratic world. If we label something “hybrid” (so as to fully name and understand that entity) we have missed the central point of Latour’s thinking, which would be to open up all entities to multiple levels of relationality so that they may be re-composed within a larger collective of humans and nonhumans. The hybrid is an invitation to question the ontological strata we have deemed necessary and to question the validity of such compositions. I will say more about the political implications of Latour’s thinking below.
Thus I agree with Carolan that we must do better than simply suggesting that “nature and culture are mutually constitutive” and that positing “all entities are hybrids” ignores different types of hybridity, but I think these are all things that Latour is pointing to anyway. In this way, Carolan’s critique, and call to think nature-cultures better, is precisely what Latour lets us do. Nevertheless, this is a crucial discussion we must not lose sight of when approaching the interaction between two such complex domains.
3) There is often no account of temporality and coevolution. Larger factors such as capitalism and globalization are not taken into account.
I am particularly interested in this point, which again will build out of points #1 and #2. If, as we have seen, we must start thinking “nature” and “culture” by first negotiating how it is that these environments are defined and composed, we must also consider that any composition we forge will also need to include a temporal dimension. With regards to the effect of capitalism and globalization I think some of the best analyses comes from Richard Norgaard, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and, more recently, Alf Hornborg.
Richard Norgaard’s account of coevolutionary dynamics between economic systems and ecological systems would be an ideal place to start. Norgaard points to the fact that economic modes of production are the primary facet of interaction between cultural systems of economics and natural systems of ecology. In this way ecosystems could also be said to be operating under the influence of multiple economies (differing human and nonhuman economies) and cultural economic systems are themselves operating within multiple ecologies (globally distributed systems of resource exchange).
If we are talking about the effects of globalization (which one would have to link to capitalism in our current historical period), I think Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford both offer compelling critiques. For both thinkers globalized machine technology has usurped — both in terms of energy consumption and complexity — the human cultures that originally designed them. In this way, though technology emerges through a particular combination of manipulated labor markets, asymmetries in economic exchange, and technical knowledge, machine technology as a whole eventually surpasses its creators, reversing the human-machine dichotomy, so that, in contemporary industrialized society, it is actually human beings who are put into the service and maintenance of machines. The is what Ellul called “the technological society,” and Mumford called “the mega machine.” Put more bluntly, we are living inside of a giant technosphere and we cannot get out.
On this latter point Alf Hornborg’s Marxist criticisms of machine technology are invaluable. Hornborg’s central thesis is that modern society has been mystified by machine technology (“machine fetishism”), the central point of which is that we have abstracted the technical knowledge required to produce machinery from the specific modes of economic exchange that are necessary for its production. In other words, by thinking that machines emerge simply from the application of technical knowledge to raw materials, we have mystified the central elements that produce machine technology which, for Hornborg, are primarily the result of asymmetrical economic exchange (i.e. exploitation).
If industrial societies were not able to exploit cheap labor and raw materials by manipulating world markets, machine technology would not be possible. The application of technical knowledge to materials is only a small component in the production of machinery.
We could in this way consider militarization a key component in the organization and distribution of ecosystem functioning, and the production of machines. The ecosphere has literally been reorganized by military activity. We must understand that in the timescale humans are operating within, they have altered the evolutionary trajectory of not just populations or groups of species, but the entire trajectory of the planet as a whole. Labor, warfare, economics- these are all evolutionary drivers changing the ecological constitution of Earth. “Nature” and “Culture” are so hopelessly fused through war and the market, that to make such distinctions hardly makes sense.
For Hornborg, machines are globally distributed entities, it is only through a process of abstraction that we experience them as discrete products that exist in simple location in front of us in shop windows and in advertisements. Hornborg argues that this mystification is in large part a result of disciplinary specialization and the compartmentalization of knowledge. His commentaries on the transitions that must be made by both the human and ecological sciences are crucial reading for anyone looking to address the nature-culture problem. I quote from his bio:
When the Human Ecology Division was founded in 1994, I suggested that Human Ecology was “ecology as if it included humans”, which it obviously didn’t at the Department of Ecology. Over the years, I have been struck by the paradox that the researchers who are most concerned about protecting the biosphere against anthropogenic damage (the biologists and ecologists) are the least equipped to analytically understand the origins of such damage, while those best equipped to do so (the social scientists) are the least concerned with an objective biophysical environment. That is why the integration of social and natural dimensions of sustainability is so crucial. The natural scientists need to understand the specificity of the human species. Why do humans, of all species, pose such a threat to biodiversity? Biologists are not equipped to understand the driving forces of environmental degradation e.g. in culture, politics, and economy. Conversely, social scientists trained to think in terms of “social constructions of nature” are ill equipped to visualize a biophysical environment objectively endangered by human activity.
All ecosystems carry the imprints of human activity. In other words, human social phenomena such as culture, language, and power are really components of ecosystems! That is why fields such as “historical ecology” and “political ecology” increasingly study “ecology as if it included humans” – which of course all ecology must do. In doing so, we must necessarily also acknowledge that environmental problems are unequally distributed in global society, and unravel the economic and political mechanisms of environmental load displacement and ecologically unequal exchange that continue to shift environmental deterioration onto the poorest sectors of world society. Problems of “environmental justice” are becoming particularly obvious in the neo-colonial rush for cheap agricultural land (and labor) in the periphery to produce biofuels for machinery in the affluent core.
Thus when we think “nature” and “culture” as coming together in “machines” we must also consider the global systems of economic exchange as well as the political realities that govern the production of technology and distribute resources. These are essential considerations in forwarding a temporal, coevolutionary component to nature-culture distinctions, and hopefully goes someway towards addressing Carolan’s concerns. There is more to be said about the problem of coevolution in nature-culture interactions, which I give a more thorough treatment to in point #4.
4) There is no account of different “natures,” only multiple interpretations with regards to a monolithic “Nature.”
Carolan’s point here is absolutely correct, and I will approach this point from two primary angles. First, by describing in more detail Latour’s thinking on this problem, with specific regard to his commitments to thinking both political ecology, on the one hand, and an ontological pluralism on the other. Second, I will advance some ideas forwarded by contemporary evolutionary theorists that give us a better account of “ecological” relationships between natures and cultures, and will force us to reconsider the usefulness of a singular term “Nature.”
Latour’s work on linking politics to nature is central to thinking about nature-culture interactions in two ways: 1) breaking down divisions between “nature” and “culture,” into the “collective,” and, 2) his commitment to an ontological pluralism. Central to his arguments in this area are his critiques of what he refers to as a “Two House” system of political engagement. The first house belongs to an incontestable nature that scientists must learn to speak for. The second house belongs to the multiplicitous political reality of culture. “The first had reality, but no politics” writes Latour, “the second had politics and mere “social construction.” Latour’s solution to this two house dualism, which is most manifest in the discourse between “nature” and “culture” is to forward a notion of society as a collective of humans and nonhumans. This collective, argues Latour, must be articulated with due democratic process so that a common world of “nature” and “culture” may be composed. The necessity of such a composition, for Latour, is clear: “Without the nonhuman, humans would not last a minute” (P. 91). By breaking up the binary “nature-culture” into “collectives” Latour does not force us to think that there exists a monolithic, or unitary “Nature” opposed to multiple interpretations arising from the domain of “Culture.” Like Caralon, Latour is keen to break up nature into a multiplicity of actors and agencies.
Furthermore, Latour, following William James, makes important contributions in linking political ecology with ontology. Arguing that reality is fundamentally plural, Latour suggests instead of a “universe” we live in a “pluriverse” (James originally used the word “multiverse”). By forwarding pluralism as an ontological ground, Latour allows one to break down the barriers between a unitary Nature, and multiple cultures, suggesting rather that multiplicity exists on both sides of the nature-culture divide and these multiplicities are entangled in complex and important ways. Thus Latour’s notion of the collective, his critique of the two-house system, and his commitment to ontological pluralism make him a central ally to re-thinking nature-culture interactions.
Other avenues open up in thinking a multiplicity of “natures” in the context of contemporary evolutionary theory, particularly with regards to the so-called “Niche-Construction Theory” (NCT) of evolution. Briefly, NCT suggests that organisms do not adapt to one or more fixed environments. Rather, each organism and population of organisms, relates to its own partially constructed environment. There is not a single “environment” to which multiple species and populations must adapt, each set of organisms is always-already engaged in a process of abstracting certain characteristics from its material surroundings, producing dynamic eco-evolutionary feed back loops. Of course, each of these feedback loops is then connected in complex ways to the feedback loops of other organisms, populations, and environments, but the emphasis remains on the interconnected multiplicity of eco-evolutionary processes, rather than unity of a single natural setting.
I would argue that, in addition to humans engaging in their own form of “cultural niche construction” within which multiple conceptions of nature are formed, all organisms be they ants, birds, bees, elephants, eels, or lizards engage in their own interpretation of what “Nature” is — Nature is multiple in a way that is not limited to the human. Lastly, NCT allows us to consider that the problem of multiple natures is not just an epistemological one. Rather different organisms, cultures, or species literally enact, abstract, and construct, distinct domains which have ongoing recursive effects. Nature is multiple ontologically and epistemologically.
There is much more to be said about both Latour’s comments and the insights of NCT, both of which imply methodological and ontological pluralism.
5) By positing only a naive realism, sociobiophysical events are kept “epistemologically distant,” as such nature-society interactions are prevented from speaking of the force of “things.”
Carolan’s points here are central to his work in environmental sociology, but also emerge in closely related fields, some of which we have already discussed such as political ecology, and others such as environmental psychology, and object-oriented ontology — which we have not yet touched on. On common approaches to nature-culture interactions, Carolan writes:
Because of their shallow or naïve realism, [environmental sociologists] lack force to speak of “things” (broadly defined to refer to causal tendencies and objects) that cannot be readily observed. As others and I have argued, many of the sociobiophysical effects of modernity are beyond direct perception, which is to say they are “epistemologically distant”…Given this, environmental sociology needs to be grounded in an explicit realist project, a project that allows for the speaking of things that cannot be directly observed…but which are real nevertheless (p. 395).
Carolan’s point here is clear: we need a properly “thing” based description of political ecology (as in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter) and a robust object-oriented ontology (as in the work of Graham Harman, Tim Morton or Levi Bryant).
I think what Carolan has done is to briefly outline six of the major points of consideration that are required for educating ourselves for the thinking of nature-culture interactions. If we follow all six thoroughly we can gain a multileveled realism that allows for the “rootedness” and “emergence” of various strata of relations between nature and culture. Such a method allows us to consider the nature-culture dichotomy without reductionism and, by calling on Latour, without unduly unifying each domain and denying it the rightful entry into the composition of a more democratic collective.
Carolan’s call to bring in temporality and political economy is also essential. Our planet is politically, technically, and economically organized in a way that demands that we, following Hornborg, consider the linkages of asymmetric economic exchanges and patterns of exploitation that produce machine technology. With Norgaard we have also considered the coevolutionary interface between economic and ecological systems. NCT was brought to explore the multiplicity of natures that exist interdependently across cultures, populations, and species of organism. Lastly, by following Carolan’s call to “things” and Latour’s appeal to the nonhuman (upon which all humans depend), we have forwarded a non-anthropocentric vision of ontological and methodological pluralism. These are all essential in thinking the interactions between nature and culture.
 Bruno Latour, The Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, p. 54