Thursday, May 7, 2009

A (Very) Short Essay on Nature and Culture

A (Very) Short Essay on Nature and Culture

Jerry Cullum

As I’ve noted before, what made the modern trinity of Freud, Marx, and Darwin so satisfying for so long was that this league of extraordinary gentlemen covered all the bases: Mind, Society, and Nature. (As C. G. Jung noted about the Christian Trinity, the unacknowledged and quite untheorized masculine exclusivity of the makeup meant that a feminine fourth and more was bound to arise sooner or later, but let that pass for now.)

The problem was that very few thinkers seemed able to cover more than two of the three bases at any one time, and a generation or so ago, Marx and Freud seemed to be the logical combination. Today it seems to be Freud and Darwin, and Darwin is the dominant partner.

The late (and sometimes wrongheaded) British art critic Peter Fuller was one of the few opting for Marx and Darwin, but of course the problem is one of stopping with any of the possible dualities. The trinity is a trinity for a good reason (and ought to be a quaternity, or at least adjusted for gender within the bases of mind, society, and nature)—leaving out any of the aspects symbolized by these figures leaves one with a truncated or partially blinded analysis. The old binary of nature and culture is a better place to start, because it’s an opposition that isn’t one, once you look closely at it.

I’ve just been re-reading one of those once-new books I never got round to writing about, wherein there is a certain amount of tsk-tsking about the colonialist eighteenth century’s naturalization of the libidinal relations of heterosexuality and the social forces of domination, the life cycle of the sugarcane being presented as though within the confines of the monogamous family and the libidinal fantasies of the eighteenth-century gentleman that the riches of sugarcane made possible being played out within architectural grottoes that embodied the particular…well, that is a well-known story, and I don’t have to keep writing about it.

But there is no need to jump up and down and get all red in the face about such matters; for the truth is that we always make nature in our own (social) image, whether we are male or female, in a socialist or a capitalist or feudal society. And we make nature in our own individual psychological image, too. We pick and choose whatever metaphors we find most psychologically and socially attractive, and de-emphasize or ignore the rest, and usually we do it unconsciously. For if we were conscious of our own inconvenient truths, we might not embrace the particular set of delusions that we do.

As it is, we remain sleepwalkers, bound by our own set of personal and societally delimited delusions, and disinclined to look at the way the others have set up their own sets, except to denounce and argue against them.

But nature is nature, and ultimately it includes culture. And transcendence, if it exists, is part of nature, or nature is part of transcendence, so our religious beliefs or lack of same don’t really get us out of this particular bind of doubleness.

I find, stacked as though I had once intended to write about the two together, Arthur Danto’s Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life and Peter Fuller’s Theoria: Art, and the Absence of Grace. Danto’s 2005 collection and Fuller’s 1988 volume have little enough in common except the topic of art and what "nature" or the impossibility of same might come to mean. Fuller was looking at the oppositions between Marx and John Ruskin when it came to science and art, and as always presented some provocative suggestions on how to get from Victorian discomforts to postmodern discontents, via the dawning discipline of sociobiology modified by a less reductive understanding of the workings of the social imagination. (As I’ve indicated, the social imagination may be social because it is so largely unconscious…people who control the media are not necessarily aware of the distortions of their own perspective caused by their position in society combined with their own predilections when it comes to art, sex, food, or anything else, all of which may be a result of how they were brought up in early childhood….)

“What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” But Ludwig Wittgenstein’s disciples at Cambridge seemed to think the trap within which we buzz was shaped by how we use words. In fact, it is shaped by how we use the world as well as how we think about it.

And now I am going to stop and figure out how to take pictures of the sculptures of “Moore in America” at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

And then I do need to think about how to rescue Fuller from himself by way of Danto; for Fuller, like Denis Dutton in The Art Instinct or Brian Boyd in his about to be published book doing the same Darwinian things to literature, often seemed so infatuated with the biological substrate of art (and John Ruskin's intuitions of same) that he quite overlooked how much his own psychology determined his aesthetic tastes, or lapses in same, and how much biology is behind the most abstract of modernist artwork and the most socially committed of contemporary new media, just as our psychology and sociology are behind our particular interpretations of biology.

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