February 4. Nature

This week we engaged in discussion nine very different readings that represented nature in myriad ways: as a place, as background, as a type/style/way of doing things, as decor, as animalia, as animality, as pleasure, as a founding sign for legal arguments, and so on.

Discussion in class was guided by five questions relating to various definitions of nature, animalia/animality, marriage, sex, sexuality, gender, and theory, among others.

For your reflection, please choose one or two of those questions and post a comment, question, refutation, or argument that rehearses possible answers to that/those question/s. Yes, you can post a question as a possible way to answer the original question. By Saturday at five, please.

7 replies on “February 4. Nature”

My reading this week of Hiro Hirai’s “Imagination, Maternal Desire and Embryology in Thomas Fienus” (quick refresh: an article that does a close-reading of Fienus’ 1608 medical textbook “On the Forces of Imagination”) hovered on the edge of many of the questions posed in our last discussion. Hirai’s article highlights that fraught edge which humans occupy as animalia that also possess a quasi-divine soul. How to make sense of what was an accepted medical phenomenon—babies appearing to be physically marked by a mother’s strong emotional response of fear or desire, e.g., the telltale strawberry-shaped birthmark that reveals a mother’s craving for that fruit—occupies Fienus’ exploration of the rules that govern the complex negotiations between maternal body, soul, and imagination on an impressionable developing fetus. Ultimately, Fienus concludes that maternal desire and imagination are not cognitive, but instinctual, vegetative, natural, and hence, surprisingly, rooted in the divine because it is also discerning. It is a topsy-turvy conclusion, but one which weaves its way between divine/earthy, nature/biology, human/animal, thinking/feeling.

I’d venture that Hirai’s essay offers an open-ended response to our third and fourth questions: “How are humans a part of animalia and/or nature? How is religion threaded with these questions of nature and animalia?” Fienus’ 17th c. medical textbook offers what appears to be a scientific explanation for a mysterious biological phenomenon, but it is also apparent that the “soul” and emotion are an important part of understanding the physical body. For Fienus, humans seem to occupy a space that moves along the spectrum of animal and divine, a hybrid space that is deeply affected by emotion and imagination. This perspective is one which modern Western medicine eschews publicly, but there has been more and more research that does reveal that a mother’s strong emotions do affect the development of her fetus. For instance, I have been told that I should be careful to avoid undue stress, as the hormones that flood my body in stress-inducing situations also threaten the fetus inside me and her development. I have also been told that physical cravings during pregnancy are often a way to make up for nutritional deficiencies: a craving for strawberries might be the body’s way of saying it’s low on vitamin C at a frequency that the brain translates to an experience of sudden, overwhelming, physical desire for the fruit. All this is to say that modern Western medicine has attempted to explain “maternal desire” with more “animal” and natural explanations—and avoid integrating the “divine,” the “soul,” or the “religious” aspect into its reasoning. For me, Hirai’s reading of Fienus raises more questions, more suggestive edges, than answers: I would not have thought to consider a reading of a 17th c. medical textbook for its insights into the way that the divine, the human, the natural world, and imagination intersect. Now that I have seen this model, I am curious (and emboldened) to look for more scholars that do these kinds of difficult and strange readings that don’t always lead straight to answers.

What is nature? How do we discuss nature? It is certainly true that nature is seen in a variety of ways, “as a place, as background, as a type/style/way of doing things, as décor, as animalia, as animality, as pleasure, as a founding sign for legal arguments, and so on.” Knowing that nature was the theme for this week, I entered the text with my own ideas of nature: a living, breathing being. It too contains spirit energies. Divine creation, interconnected with other beings, nature is and provides knowledge, if we dare to listen to the stories it tells.

In Vico’s “Poetic Morals,” I understood nature to be beginning, or perhaps even essence. Place in a binary against the arrogant atheist, the nature (essence) of poetic morality seems to be humility, that which allows us to “know,” to put to good use the knowledge of God. It is also piety. Since piety, like nature, is beginning, mother of moral, economic, and civil virtues, that which founds the nations, can we say that nature is mother?

An image of the woman figure in “Poetic Morals” depicts Juno as a mortal enemy of virtue. She “[hangs] in the air with a rope around her neck and her hands tied by another rope with two heavy stones tied to her feet;” this image used to be a symbol for the sanctity of marriage (175). The rope around her neck recalls the violence of the first men on their wives. The rope around her hands signifies the subjection of wives to their husbands. And the stone at her feet represents stability. Through nature, the first men came to “know” God, creating their first binding with the Divine, religando. It is this first binding that instills piety, fear of the Divine. Through marriage, the second binding, the first men sought to instill virtue/piety/fear of divinity. Dragging women to their caves, they recreate the violent and shameful experience they had had in encountering God. It is in that way, women came to know the divine, through their husbands, who are also their masters. Sister to their children, the wife learned alongside her children knowledge of divinity from her husband/master, who take on the responsibility to instill piety in his home, the foundation of nations. Marriage to me then, seems to be an image of nature.

But is marriage itself enough? Juno, who did not have any children, and jealous of an adulterous Jove, punish Jove’s “bastard son.” She gave Hercules (Jove’s son) a tremendous amount of work. Under the auspices of his father, Hercules was able to overcome all difficulties. Thus, Hercules, the founder of every ancient gentile nation because of his virtues, “became not Juno’s glory but her complete disgrace” (175). Juno, rendered jealous and infertile, became the mortal enemy of virtue. Could it be then that beyond marriage, motherhood is also seen as an image of nature?

I am still wrestling with Vico’s elucidation of poetry and imagination, especially as it relates to the question of how religion (esp. notions of idolatry), is threaded with nature and animalia. My first reading of Vico offered rich insights into theological anthropology and imago Dei. I found his perspective refreshing: he acknowledges we have created God in our image, but instead of lamenting this as a selfish act of the ego, he praises early human capacities for imagination and wonder (with a patronizing tone, no doubt). His writing is lovely on this point:

“In such fashion the first men of the gentile nations, children of nascent mankind, created things according to their own ideas. But this creation was infinitely different from that of God. For God, in his purest intelligence, knows things, and, by knowing them, creates them; but they, in their robust ignorance, did it by virtue of a wholly corporeal imagination. And because it was quite corporeal, they did it with marvel¬ous sublimity; a sublimity such and so great that it excessively perturbed the very persons who by imagining did the creating, for which they were called poets, which is Greek for creators” (Vico, “Metaphysics,” 117).

Vico does not try to make human beings into Gods but instead acknowledges our radical alterity from God in our ignorance, which gives birth to curiosity, wonder, and eventually, knowledge. He ascribes the trait of “credible impossibility” to poetry (120). In this sense, nature is irrevocably religious and theological. It is the source of knowledge insofar as human beings draw vast, imaginative conclusions from what we see in nature, such as the origin story of Jove.

While I am drawn to Vico’s emphasis on the necessary theological character of nature and humanity’s place in it and relationship to it, the cycle he articulates regarding how humankind has mined ‘fact’ from nature leads to a number of problems, not least of which is his ascription of femininity and eros to poetry, and masculinity and heroism to the realm of science (Vico, “Morals,” 173, 176). His description of what poetry is in “Metaphysics” is beautiful and rich, but as soon as he distinguishes it from higher, later forms of knowledge in “Morals,” he denigrates his own retrieval of the poetry of nature.

I found Chidester’s chapter additionally clarifying regarding the dangers of some of Vico’s claims. Even if humanity’s original relationship to animality was creative and poetic, the narrative of humanity’s development as a distancing from animality allows the category of “animal” to be invoked against any human group whose practices, beliefs, existence the reigning order wishes to subjugate. This immediately grew my attention to an infamous passage from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he rejects Phillis Wheatley as a legitimate poet by delivering a litany of biological anti-black racism:

“Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar œstrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet.” (Jefferson, Notes, Query XIV, p. 150).

With these words, Jefferson dissolves the distinction drawn by Vico; he hijacks the categories of “poetry,” “imagination,” even “love” as higher-order feelings and actions in order to solidify his white supremacy. This is ultimately why I am torn on Vico’s poetic words: he articulates a theologically beautiful understanding of what poetry is, but, in line with his Enlightenment contemporaries, he also sets up the conditions for these categories to be monopolized and weaponized by humanity in our endeavors to declare what is “animal” and separate (read: hierarchically lift) ourselves above it.

I was excited to have the opportunity to read and think about Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina for this class. I’m doing some research for another professor on the history of the relationship between science and religion, and this is, of course, a seminal text in that debate. This, of course, also makes it a seminal text in the way that nature relates to religion. That nature tells us something about God can, within the Christian tradition, be traced at least back to St. Paul (Romans 1:20). And as Galileo demonstrates in his letter, no less an authority than Augustine himself had repeatedly argued that we should not use the Bible to understand how the natural world works.
What makes Galileo’s understanding of the relationship of nature to religion is, in one sense, simply how much he’s invested in the investigation of nature. Augustine’s motivation in not using the Bible in understanding the physical world is less about his concern for the integrity of science and more his fear that it will make Christians look like simpletons. Galileo, of course, is quite concerned with the integrity of scientific investigation. He wants to be able to use “sense experiences” and “necessary demonstrations” when learning about the natural world rather than first looking at the words of Scripture.
Therefore for Galileo, while nature still in some way tells us of the divine (“nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible,” 5), methodologically the study of it ought to be kept separate from theology. Investigations of nature take place in their own domain, with its own methodology. Nature is more “inflexible,” refusing to condescend to our level of understanding, as Scripture does. So while nature still “tells” us of God, it has its own methodology.

What roles do animals play in nature? How are humans part of animalia/nature?

Last week I was tasked with reading Foucault’s “Forms of Problematization” from his larger work The Uses of Pleasure: History of Sexuality, Vol. 2 in which he discussed the prevalence of sexual austerity within the social and political practices of ancient Greece and Rome. While discussing sexual austerity as an ideal model for moral conduct in society, the elephant is invoked as an example of sexual modesty found within nature, among the animals, which showed how monogamy, control over sexual desire, and cleanliness helped to “[manifest] virtue, inner strength, and self mastery.” The elephant, which mated infrequently, remained loyal to its mate and to its family, points to a rare moment among the rhetoric of animalia wherein an exceptional beast (similar to a noble savage) is used to show how humans should tame themselves in the name of fidelity and virtue. One aspect of Foucault’s analysis that is key is the way that most tenants of sexual austerity had minimal if anything to do with women, but instead were the task of men to uphold and police among other men given the assumption that the right to virtue and truth — as well as the right to political and intellectual wisdom — was the property of men alone. While we have discussed, often through Chidester’s text, how questions of animalia and nature were used as a method of delineating the cultural/ethnic “other” as a savage not-animal-but-also-not-human, I am struck by the way that Foucault’s text exemplifies the ways that man will use supposed anomalies in nature — a large beast being gentle, loyal, and sexually modest — as a method to rewrite nature to fit/strengthen the social models which serve the political interests of the elite. It seems to be that one of the most important, albeit coded, desires which guide how philosophers have discussed nature is the desire to place man outside of and even above the precarity of nature as a means to presume control over what is ultimately uncontrollable. For the ancient philosophers, sexual austerity fidelity was not about the sanctity of their marital bond, but about practicing (or really just espousing) a rhetoric of discipline and self-control, based in fear, in which the search for virtue hinges not on understanding how the human is a part of nature, but on debating how the human is dominant over nature, including the internal nature of one’s own desire.

For Bataille, nature is a plane of immanence in which the animal is immersed “like water in water.” He emphasizes that the human can neither access nor experience the animal’s immanent dwelling in nature due to, he implicitly suggests, the human’s constitutive dimension of transcendence–likely a result of its fall into language. Yet, paradoxically, Bataille argues that poetry–which always tends toward the unknowable–is the only mode with which the human can and does approximate that animal’s experience (of nature) as immanence. Though Bataille does not discuss religion in his text, I think religion is threaded into it through this dyadic construction of the animal’s immanence versus the human’s transcendence. While we may tend to think that the human’s constitution through transcendence is precisely what opens (it to) the domain of religion, I think Bataille theorization of animality-immanence and poetry-unknowability could suggest a reversal of this polarity: in which religion (esp. mysticism) is what opens the human back up (or, rather, in) to the absolute immanence of nature that precedes the transcendent-function of individuation.

For my (unfortunately must belated) blog post on our seminar session on nature, I want to write down a few thoughts on the relationship between nature and science in Chidester’s ‘Animals and Animalism’ chapter.

I found Chidester’s discussion of phrenology—the pseudoscience of measuring physical traits of human skulls in order to determine mental capacities—both horrifying and elucidating. It is a fantastic account of the ways in which phrenology has been used in order to “scientifically” justify both racism and sexism. I find it worthy of note to mention that phrenology significantly contributed to the field of forensic anthropology. We might also be tempted to think of Cesare Lombroso’s work in phrenology and facial recognition at the root of the conception of criminology, in which Lombrosco argues that “criminals” have certain facial features that distinguish them from “non-criminals”, indicating that one either is or is not born a criminal. Of course, we can also see these structures in place in the fields of psychiatry.

On a more personal note, I have been fortunate to have spent a significant amount of my childhood with people with physical and mental disabilities and have also worked as a caretaker in the field on and off since I was fourteen years old. It has always sickened and enraged me to see the ways in which science is used to legitimize not only ableism but the “dehumanization” of people with physical and (perhaps especially) mental disabilities—to the point of legitimizing euthanasia. Of course I am also German, which has (thankfully) forced me to sit with the ways in which (pseudo)science has been used to legitimize the Holocaust.

What my continuous engagement with Chidester’s work and our class discussion in tandem with my interest in Afro-Pessimism and Calvin Warren’s work on Black Nihilism has made me think about throughout these past couple of weeks, however, is how closely science, ontology and imperialism are intertwined in the foundation of our concept of Being. While the theme of our seminar session was nature, it is really the ways in which nature is being used by the means of science’s interpretation of it in order to legitimize ontological terror, that struck me the most this week. I’m very much looking forward to reading Prof. Carrión’s work on this!

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