Saturday, September 1, 2012

In a Strange Wood

In the heart of a proverbially untamed New World, Levi-Strauss writes of his jarring realization that nature is not itself. Confronted with the bona fide wildness of a South American landscape that seems impervious to human effects, the landscapes of his native Europe come startlingly into view as the product of a long relation between people and a nature in which they are unrelentingly embedded – their very quality of being wilderness is materially possible only insofar as they display the effects of past human activities, long lost in the forgetfulness of time, mocked by the florid natures of a realer American world, untouched and untouchable by merely human agencies.

Confronted with this pulsating and yet impassive Amazonian nature, European landscapes seem surprisingly manmade – their apparent wildness only underscores their artificiality, their status as a product of human labors. “Only if one has traveled in America does one realize that this sublime harmony” of a once transcendental, extra-human wilderness, “far from being a spontaneous manifestation of nature, is the result of agreements painstakingly evolved during a long collaboration between man and his landscape. Man naively admires the effects of his past achievements.”[1]

The anthropologist, in a moment of clarity, is caught in the throes of a revelation – that which he understood as natural has in fact always borne the marks of its transformation by human activities – the natural has always been cultural, it seems. But the realization of ‘nature’ as a social compact, in the human-environment entanglement of European ecology, stands in contrast with the figure of an unchanged Amazon, thwarting transformation by human capacities by a kind of inertness, indifference.

I find this part of Levi-Strauss’s work magical, capturing a kind of mid-century wonder at nature before its reconstitution as an overtly politicized question. And while the account of environment here suggests a distance from questions we understand as ‘political,’ and therefore stands awkwardly with a critical practice that aims at demonstrating the link between politics and ecology, I’d like to suggest that it offers a way of staging questions that are germane to contemporarypolitical ecology.

Indeed, the parallax between this mid-century writing and the project of political ecology can be productive in its not-quite overlap, the near miss of objects and concerns. For Levi-Strauss’s New and Old Worlds present two figurations of human and nonhuman (in)capacities that we point toward the coordinates of a set of problematics that political ecology could profitably begin to tackle. It is a site for considering human capacities to transform environments, and capacities for nonhuman things to remain untransformed. This pre-empts, anachronistically to be sure, a much more contemporary set of empirical and theoretical concerns about what people do as a species, on the one hand, and the capacities of nonhuman things on the other. Contemporary environmental concerns are an important site for thematizing the relations between human agency and environmental change, as well as, on the flipside, the irreducibility of ecological processes to anthropocentric ‘social’ ones. Ecological concerns in this sense raise questions about politics through the reflections on categories like agency, but they also invite a thoroughgoing reflection on ‘politics’ as such.

We see a dual movement in which Levi-Strauss’s dichotomy of landscapes anticipates two schematic shifts. First, a kind of regret toward forms of entanglement in which environments appear to register the effects of human actions – thus the intense importance of demonstrating human causation of environmental change as a way of making ecological matters legibly ‘political.’ Here environment as a figure of human-nonhuman entanglement paradoxically reinvests human capacities as part of contemporary human species-being. But on the other hand, there is, in his Amazon, a glimpse at a figure of nature that is ultimately inhuman, irreducible to human actions, even while related to them. This seems to preempt contemporary politico-philosophical concern, especially with revised interest in materiality and matters of ontology, with theorizing more complex forms of relation that take seriously the capacities of nonhumans.This includes, for instance, forms of contemporary ecological governance that start with the problem of the non-isomorphism of given frames of politics and the unfurling of ecological processes.

In this sense, we can understand Levi-Strauss as gesturing at a problem-space in which questions of the capacities of humans and nonhumans and the modes through which they relate are being thematized, both in our analyses and the phenomena that beg for new analysis. The role for political ecology here would not be the exploration of ecological matters as a province of politics in general, but would start by considering the challenge that matters of concern deemed ‘ecological’ have for a slew of now-destabilized categories, especially that of politics. It would explore how ecological concerns are politicized, yes, and political ecology would also be a place where ecology would make politics strange, slowing down reasoning, in Isabelle Stengers’s words, to “create an opportunity to arouse a slightly differentawareness of the problems and situations mobilizing us.” It would be like the sensation of finding oneself in a strange wood, and in relief, for a once-familiar old world to appear differently.

Jerry Zee
Department of Anthropology
UC Berkeley

[1] Levi-Strauss, Claude .1984[1955]. Tristes Tropiques. New York: Atheneum. P. 94.

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