Monday, September 14, 2015

Natures and the Culture of Resilience

In early indigenous cultures, nature was the source of material and of technique, and culture was the work of forming something from them. Even at that beginning point, a cultural work had a linguistic dimension, a referential dimension, that is, a self-referential dimension. The manner of its construction was also a speech act, speaking the instructions for its replication by the next generations, and more importantly, speaking its myth, the reasons and motivations for its replication.
This can be briefly illustrated with the case of animal ‘constructions’. A bird or beast may weave a nest, or build a bower. They will use materials and techniques from nature, and perhaps they even build instructions into the work for future generations to repeat. But they do so in their own language, and if there is a mythic dimension, surely we cannot read it. Humans may even reuse a bird’s nest or a lion’s bower, but we don’t share a language with them. When we make something for ourselves, it participates, deeply, in the distinctive forms of our shared self-awareness, and that awareness is linguistic.
Such cultural production forms a “second nature”, a complete world of things made by the hand of man.
A metabolic ecosystem made for human communities, isolated within and still directly supported by “first nature”, the rich material and energy flows of the natural world.
“Third nature” normally refers to the ecosystem built with industrialized techniques, drawing its paradigms and metaphors from “second nature” and dependent on “first nature” only for its raw materials and raw energies. Even something as biological as our food can be manufactured by machines from chemical inputs. In “third nature” technology replaces the generative functions of both human skill and of the natural world.
I will suggest that “third nature” can also refer, when applied in the linguistic dimension of cultural production, to a self-referential quality identified by postmodernists. Here, “third nature” is a world of myth that refers to myth, speech acts within production that no longer need to speak instructions or persuasions about replication and survival. The builder’s ‘paradigm’ loses its sense of purpose in an endless play of signs. The ‘style’ of nest and bower can float freely, referring to previous styles, to unrelated meanings, to pure fancy. As a practical matter, it is industrial technology that allows this freedom, taking care of material replication with minimal reliance on human skills or the ecologies of the natural world.
Most of the world’s population now lives in “third nature”, within a cultural and technological matrix that seems divorced from the limitations of the natural world. Some rural cultures still live in “second nature” where human skill and coordination with the flows of the natural world are essential for survival. It is easy to romanticize the virtues of these remaining cultures, just as it is easy to imagine that a very few primitive peoples have somehow survived in a ‘state of nature’, i.e., are living in “first nature”.
A “fourth nature” is emerging. Its technological features are nano-scaled manufacture and genetic engineering. Its cultural features are virtual reality and artificial intelligence. The cost of these advances, both to our environment and to our biological selves, is presently so high that they have yet to form a complete world around our consciousness. At least some of us will live inside that world quite soon.
A common key to each of these “natures” has been our meditations on creating life, the ultimate self-reflective creative act. In each era, we have built automata, answering more to a philosophic inquiry than to any compelling functional need. Building our own worlds, following the paradigms of life itself, has always raised questions of identity and ethical responsibility.
With the sophistication that allows us to occupy increasingly separated and virtualized replicas of the natural world comes an increasing ungroundedness, from place and from the present moment. This has cultural repercussions which taken accumulatively become liabilities for our collective survival. These liabilities are expressed in the current concern for ‘resilience’. Adequate responses to shortcomings in our ‘community resilience’ must address not only the pragmatic concerns of habitat, food supply, security, et cetera, but must also include a cultural dimension, an ethical balancing mechanism amongst the several ‘natures’ that we concurrently inhabit.