Back to Nature

Proponents of the originary hypothesis find themselves arguing for the discontinuity of humans with non-human animals far more often than we find ourselves arguing for the continuity between the two realms or levels of reality. The reason for this is a good one, but also purely contingent: the most powerful obstacle to a careful consideration of the originary hypothesis by humanists and scientists (social and natural alike) is the “materialist” or “atheist” dogma that the quintessentially human capacities, such as consciousness, or ethics, are either illusions or versions of capacities shared with other animals. This dogma, in turn draws its strength from the anti-religious origins of modern thought, as well as more recent victimary elements, meaning that originary hypothesists (to coin a phrase in order to avoid tiresome repetition) are in turn are compelled to defend religion as “good anthropology,” at least, if “bad ontology.”

I have no quarrel with this argument, but the terms of this polemic have obscured from view, I think, the fact that coinciding with the originary leap out of “nature” must have been a very determined, even compulsive, effort at re-fitting ourselves back into nature. The sounds and rhythms of spoken language, the structures of dwellings, the forms of tools and weapons, the enactment of rituals and, finally, the original forms of the written word, would all be motivated by attempts to either imitate or blend into the surrounding environment.

All of these efforts would, of course, involves specific abstractions from (the singling out of and articulation of relevant features) and therefore interpretations of those surroundings—such interpretations would depend upon the surroundings themselves as well as what the sign system and way of life of the community as a whole would lead them to notice. This is why a “cratyllian” theory of language, which would argue that the sounds of words derive from the object of representation (that is, contain a significant and irreducible “non-arbitrary,” iconic, dimension), need not be surprised at the vast diversity of languages. The re, or retro, fitting back into nature would always be done in specific events, and would always coincide with the development of the sign system (that is, would simultaneously involve a further differentiation from nature), but it would always be done.

There is no reason to assume that anything has changed for humans in this regard—even the most advanced technologies, enabling us to fly, light our homes, analyze our DNA, devise complex algorithms are all (re)trofittings into nature, mediated through previous (re)trofittings, as we use the air and wind to elevate and transport ourselves, “download” our minds and brains into machines, find our language inside of the mechanisms of transmission of heritable material from generation to generation. All these devisings are, as Marshall McLuhan asserted, extensions of our senses and more, broadly, our semiosis. And, needless to say, language always situates us firmly in space, behind, above, underneath, in front of, moving or standing still, feeling, and so on. This is why I think the “naturalistic fallacy,” that is, appeals to nature as arguments for what is good, is hardly a fallacy at all—unless “nature” is reduced to a strictly physicalist account.

The question then, is, why is it that people can feel—as they undoubtedly often feel—as if they have lost touch with nature, been alienated from it, been denatured themselves? This seems to be a perpetual complaint of civilized societies in particular, as the continuing power of the pastoral demonstrates. Part of it is certainly that whatever has become habitual, and therefore unconscious and “given” is easily conflated with the natural, and so any disruption of habits is experienced as a denaturing. But, beyond that, a sense of being denatured is really a sense of being decultured—of having lost a shared naturalization or “fit” between a people and their surroundings. In other words, since the (re)trofitting back into nature takes place on a scene, being alienated from nature is really being de-scened.

In that case, appeals to nature can be persuasive to the extent that they direct attention to the fraying of shared attentional scenes; and they can be effective and salutary to the extent that they restore shared attention in new and sustainable scenes. But such appeals must genuinely find a “fit”—they cannot just be “rhetorical.” How is it possible to know what “fits,” and for whom the fit fits? No one really can, and extreme suspicion should alight on anyone claiming to know how “we” can restore some lost value, virtue, perception, or mode of expression that was more in accord with nature. But what can be done is singling out elements, and relations between elements, in any surrounding, and transforming those relations into constraints that allow for indefinite iteration. No new technology can denature us or take away our humanity—not genetics, not information technology, not virtual reality, or robotics, not nuclear weapons. The capacity to, and fantasy of, manipulating our basic components, of being a conductor rather than intentional users of signs, of utterly destroying ourselves, has always been with us. Those capacities and fantasies are what take shape within and tear apart shared intentional scenes and therefore eliciting them in relatively protected spaces and making them visible is the way to restore those scenes.

Those who devote themselves to displaying whatever is anomalous in any utterance or scene therefore perform the greatest service to humanity. One of the funnier and more memorable episodes of “Seinfeld,” I think, was the one where George finds (after realizing that “every” decision he has made in his life so far has been wrong) great success in “doing the opposite” of his immediate impulses and habitual responses. Whether or not the writers of that episode were familiar with the esthetic practices of pataphysics, performance art, happenings, conceptual art, and Oulipo, the idea was in their spirit. The first “opposite” thing George does in that episode is, instead of “being intimidated by women,” he goes boldly up to an attractive woman and, in another instance of “doing the opposite,” instead of giving her his usual line of BS, announces that he is unemployed and lives at home with his parents. The woman responds warmly (and they commence a relationship), perhaps suggesting that she herself is “doing the opposite”—the anomalous generates the anomalous. The lesson is that even the most uncreative among us can generate a constraint to live by, since anyone can find something in their daily practices to negate—anyone knows what they feel like doing, or feel like they should do, what is expected of them, in a given instance, and can therefore “do the opposite” (not that it is always obvious what the “opposite” of something is). Negation is deferral and the start of discipline, and even the most arbitrary negation can get the ball rolling.

Generating an anomaly opens a space of uncertainty, awkwardness and anxiety, and a space that will undoubtedly be quickly closed, since humankind cannot bear not to feel part of a scene. But the closure will also be a disclosure, as the boundary between fit and misfit becomes momentarily visible. Technology is imperative—what we become capable of doing becomes what we have no choice but to do. But imperatives can be disobeyed, or obeyed too well. There should be rules for the esthetico-ethical practice I am proposing—all violence and compulsion should be avoided, and even discomfort should not be pushed beyond a certain threshold (which is obviously difficult to measure). The point is to produce examples or, better, yet, “samples,” which are drawn from and can be examined for their conformity with, a larger “population”; and, “sampled” in turn as one pleases. This is a practice of “cynicism,” in the Diogenean sense that Peter Sloterdijk explored in his popular, yet anomalous (not really left or right, kind of, but not quite “theory”) when it appeared in the 1980s, Critique of Cynical Reason. Perhaps the fool of Lear is another “sample.” The ancient cynics were the original critics of civilization, calling for a return to nature, which is to say what is needful and no more, and leading to Stoicism. Pataphysics (really the origin of those esthetic movements I just mentioned along with it) might lead in any number of directions but always, I think, back to nature.

Two questions: first, why should anomalies be preferred to the normal?; second, are all anomalies created equal—can’t one be anomalous, “do the opposite,” for evil as well as good? Number 1: it is not so much that the anomalous is to be preferred to the normal as that the anomalous is what we notice, while the normal is invisible. In other words, we attend from the normal to the anomalous. Furthermore, the anomalous precedes, logically and temporally, the normal: the first sign was an anomaly, and one can only determine normalcy by averaging out anomalous instances. Even more: there is no normal, just various efforts at and processes of normalizing the anomalous. None of which, of course, means that the normal isn’t real or desirable—it just means that we generate the normal by modeling ourselves on one or another anomaly. And that brings us to the second question, which concerns which anomalies we model ourselves on. And here, indeed, there can be no a priori principle that sorts out the good anomalies to be imitated and the bad ones to be shunned. Any attempt to propose such a principle simply and arbitrarily declares a particular version of the normal anomaly free. Furthermore, if my immediate move is to negate what is immediately expected, then doesn’t that mean I slip from one negation to another, doing the opposite of the opposite thereby spinning in circles or ending up where I started?

Let’s start with the second part of the second question—doing the opposite of the opposite and so on does not lead one in a circle or back to the starting point because there is more of a rough diagonal than a circle and there is no starting point to return to because that has already dissolved in the initial negation. The expectations generated by the first negation or deferral will be different from the expectations deferred, and so their opposite will not be the original position. The only question left, then, is that distinguishing between good and bad anomalies. Let’s try out an example: let’s say the normal position in a particular cultural setting is to favor the death penalty. One “opposite” of this would be “eliminate the death penalty”; another opposite might be to replace today’s efficient, antiseptic death penalty (the constant search for more distanced, neat and technologically refined means) with the old-fashioned hanging, drawing and quartering. Is arguing for one position better, ethically, than arguing for the other? If you’re an Enlightenment rationalist like Steven Pinker, I suppose so—the less violent the better, so if we could move “forward” towards the elimination of the death penalty than would be an ethical advance like the move from cruder to more refined forms of punishment. My own answer is that I don’t know. Or care. Who can know all the consequences of distancing ourselves from our ever more lethal forms of homicide? Or of brutal, terrifying, spectacle style punishments? Or of striving to punish less and less? But, some originary demon might ask, surely we can say that random punishment, of whatever kind, is worse, more evil, than attempts to make punishment correspond to some act that has been determined, by some more or less freely created consensus, to be wrong? “Random punishment” would be another “opposite,” in this case to the juridical norms we take for granted. The idea of random punishment is not evil, because ideas can’t be evil; quite to the contrary, this like any idea is productive because we are then able to imagine what it would mean to attempt it. I suppose Shirley Jackson’s famous story, “The Lottery,” is one attempt to do so, but even there the punishment is very confined and localized—we’d have to imagine some much more elaborate mode of generating random outcomes—if it were genuinely random, punishment could come to anyone, anytime. But would it still be “punishment”? Is “random punishment,” perhaps, simply a contradiction in terms? Maybe, but maybe not if we were to imagine some originary and unlocalizable criminality that constitutes the human and that transcends the rather petty and irrelevant acts we carry out every day. From that standpoint, what we do now is “random punishment.” If we imagine some random punishment generator, and work through the implications, would the outcomes actually turn out to be random when they came out? (What, continues the originary demon, about someone who decides to enact random punishment, in a kind of perfectly senseless terrorism—he would be doing the opposite of something, wouldn’t he? I know you laid down a rule prohibiting violence, but the senseless terrorist is just doing the opposite of that rule, isn’t he? Well, I might answer, if he wants to be a character in a hack pseudo-Dostoevskian novel, who could stop him—but there are a lot of opposites between the concept of “senseless terrorism” and its enactment, and those digressions would be more revealing than the playing out of the terrorist act, which would actually have fairly predictable consequences.)

Enough of that. In the end, one would simply have to trust the scenicity of human being to average out the anomalies—to arrive at modes of punishment that could be recognized as legitimate, i.e., as generating the most diffused, distributed and composed forms of resentment possible under the circumstances. What else could we trust to? At this point in history, does anyone really think that they can devise a universal rule for determining what counts as a just system of punishment? (Or at least a universal rule shared by anyone else, starting with one’s book reviewer.) In other words, back to nature! But I would like to make a more important argument here. We are, each one of us, composed of such negations, constraints and anomalies, doing the opposite in all kinds of major and minor, planned and spontaneous ways. We average ourselves out in order to “fit,” but in doing so we can try to fit into “culture” or “nature”—by “culture,” in this case, I mean approved and standardized models (which, by definition, have banished anomalies); by “nature,” I mean the reduction to the lowest possible threshold of meaning: what do any or all of us turn out to mean by “punishment” (or anything else) when the question is imposed upon us in the way that it comes to be imposed once it has crossed the threshold of questionability? If “culture” works, it’s probably the safer alternative; I don’t think it works anymore—so, once again, back to nature!

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