from nature to wildness: wapner again

After having established the existence of a postnature world, wherein neither conceptually nor empirically does nature continue to exist, Wapner slides from nature to wilderness/wildness. I wondered in an earlier post how a case for environmental action could be made in the wake of nature’s disappearance. It seems that the strategy is to proclaim the end of nature while shifting attention onto wilderness and the wild, even if these latter are hemmed in by human preservation and reservation efforts (as Wapner admits).

What, then, counts as wild? As it turns out, it is that aspect of nature which remains beyond our control (if not our touch):

For all their constructed quality, wilderness areas still harbor wildness to the degree that the relationships and dynamics of ecosystems will always exceed the determinative and predictive power of human logic and control. Through a blurring of boundaries we can foster a greater coexistence with untambale wildness. (Living Through the End of Nature, 157)

In general, Wapner’s emphasis is on relationships: weaving together human and wild areas in such a way that the boundaries are respected but not strictly enforced. These relationships should safeguard the otherness of the wild, which is precisely what makes it wild and what makes it worth preserving (is this an anthropocentric response to the other?).

One of the greatest gifts wildness offers is the chance to shake off our habitual ways of being in the world and experience things anew. We enjoy this experience precisely because we are not in control. (163)

Encountering otherness is at the most basic level what wildness is all about. Preserving places, domains, realms, and spheres of experience in which wildness’ presence can be retrieved and experienced is what [environmentalists] have long committed themselves to. (163-164)

Practically, I find nothing to object to in these sentiments. I’m not sure that wildness has been successfully circumscribed in a way that nature has not. Are we clear about the wild in a way that we cannot, or can no longer, be about nature? Is it as simple as attributing otherness to what seems out of our control, just as it is simple to assert that, of course, there is something beyond social construction:

Almost everyone recognizes that there is a fundamental substratum of materiality in the world; few of us, even the most ardent constructivists, are philosophical idealists in the sense of believing that reality is merely and exclusively a matter of mind or ideas. Drop a brick on a social constructivist’s foot and it still hurts. There is a genuine physicality to the world. (126)

Wapner, like so many others, presents a strong case for constructivism. The argument is there and it is, however abbreviated, compelling. The materiality and physicality of the world, by contrast, is simply asserted. No argument, just an appeal to what most people believe. But most people also disbelieve in the social construction of the real, so does this mean that they weaken the constructivist’s position too?

wapner’s self-canceling premise

As I mentioned in a recent post, Wapner’s Living Through the End of Nature offers a middle position between true believer environmentalists and their skeptical opponents. The issue is much cloudier than this either/or, argues Wapner, so we need to learn to live with the tension created by our ‘postnature’ world. ‘Nature’ has vanished, both conceptually and empirically. This sounds well and good, but can it actually vanish in this double sense? If it has never existed conceptually, can if vanish empirically? Here’s how Wapner frames the issue:

While we used to think of humans and nature as self-subsisting realms marked by distinct characteristics and qualities, the two spheres are melding into each other such that it is hard to draw a boundary between them. Empirically, we humans have extended ourselves across and into every ecological niche on the planet, making it impossible to say anymore where humans end and nature begins. Likewise, conceptually, we have come to understand that neither nature nor humanity has a given ‘nature’ to it, since our ideas of each are social constructions. (109)

If the latter is true, I don’t see how we can make sense of the former. If there has always been a conceptual confusion about nature and humanity–seeing that they’re always linked, presupposing one another, and therefore not really separate realms of being–then how could humans ‘extend’ themselves into nature. That both of these things are happening at once, today, is the very premise of Wapner’s book. But it seems that the premise cancels itself. Am I wrong about this?

He might say that there are two sides of the ‘end of nature’ narrative, those of the environmentalist and those of the ‘social constructionist’. Indeed, that is what he’s saying. But in order for his book to have some sort of bearing on the actual problem at hand, it seems that he’ll need to make some commitment. Either nature used to exist or it never existed. I’m tuned in.

phenomenology and ambient poetics

I’ve also been reading through Morton’s Ecology without Nature. One of the things that I find compelling in his analysis of ‘ecomimesis’ (nature writing) is his deployment of an ‘ambient poetics’ (this is, I think, his term).

Ecomimesis involves a poetics of ambience. Ambience denotes a sense of circumambient, or surrounding, world. It suggests something material and physical, though somewhat intangible, as if space itself had a material aspect–an idea that should not, after Einstein, appear strange. (33-34)

A lot could be revealed about phenomenology with ambient poetics, with its six elements of rendering,, the medial, the timbral, the Aeolian, tone, and the re-mark. That’s my intuition at this point.

In a related note, Morton gives a defense of (alien) phenomenology at his blog.

wapner: the first 100 pages

One hundred pages into Wapner’s Living Through the End of Nature. What’s been accomplished so far is a cursory history of the American environmentalist movement, a characterization of its general positions and motivations, and a distillation of its aspiration, summed up as the ‘dream of naturalism’. This is contrasted with the ‘dream of mastery’ held by environmental skeptics, and an explanation of this position’s philosophical principles.

The strange thing about the first 100 pages: it seems like everything he writes is common knowledge, popular wisdom, and even caricature of the views discussed. That is, I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything I didn’t already know. And yet, I’m not sure I could have retrieved all of the material from my mind and put it in a clear articulation as Wapner has. This is what would make it useful for an undergraduate course, where students are largely unfamiliar with the history and philosophy of the environmentalist/skeptic debate. Maybe it’s that what Wapner discusses is just out there, floating in the discourse of the environment. He’s just snatched all that free-floating popular knowledge and laid it out for us.

postnature crisis?

I’m reading Paul Wapner’s Living Through the End of Nature (MIT 2010). I learned in the introduction that we live in a postnature world. But I already knew that after reading McKibben and Morton. For Wapner, the postnature world is post- in two distinct ways. On the one hand, there is the ‘postmodern’ ecocritical sense in which there is no such thing as nature because the natural and the human are conceptually linked. Nature never had a pure existence. On the other hand, we could say that there used to be something like ‘wildness’, but no longer does it exist. Those days are over; no region of nature is untouched by the human. This is an empirical claim, the former is a conceptual point. Wapner’s proposal is that we do not take sides on the issue, but rather figure out a way to live in the tension between these competing views of our postnatural landscape.

What is interesting, and perhaps problematic, is that justifying the need for such a book (which has practical aspirations and speaks to the future of the environmentalist movement) requires a sense of crisis. To get off the ground it has to offer an account of its own necessity, and this necessity is often dictated by common environmentalist concerns. In other words, it needs to commit itself to the view that the environment is endangered and there is something that we humans can do about it. I want to ask what environmental crisis means when ‘nature’ is precisely the term in question. Secondly, I want to ask if it is even possible to proclaim a crisis without appealing to a common sense understanding of nature, that is, nature as that realm of being corrupted by human activity.

There’s nothing definite in these questions; they’re not judgments. Rather, these are the questions I hope to see answered as I read through the rest of Wapner’s book.