(Human) Nature: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Ecotheory and Justice
On December 3rd, 2010, our ENG 495 Ecocriticism class put on a conference entitled (Human) Nature: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Ecotheory and Justice at the Center for Visual Arts at Illinois State University.
The title of my presentation was “The Speaking World: Questioning the ‘Nature-as-Text’ Metaphor.”
In my presentation, I examine ways in which the landscape has been conceptualized as a collection of texts that are authored by a number of contested creators. Simultaneously, I show that authorship, as an endorsement to speak, participate in meaning making, and initiate action with recognizable consequences, is currently only comfortably afforded to human entities. The field of authorship studies has recognized the birth of literary property (and authorial ownership) in our relationship with the land (Mark Rose), and that authenticity developed out of the dualisms constructed from the nature/culture binary (Lionel Trilling). I explore the implications of applying the attributes of authorship from Rhetoric and Composition Studies, namely those of morality, originality, identity, sincerity, authenticity, and autonomy to those entities potentially positioned as authors of the world: humans (cyborgs, via Haraway’s notorious theorizing), animals, machines (using the work of Berry, Haraway, and Mazis), and perhaps even other animate and inanimate beings (via Evernden’s discussion of interrelatedness). By imbuing the interconnected actions and reactions of diversified human and nonhuman entities in the world with the power of authorship, I argue that it is more possible to recognize and validate their reciprocal influences upon one another.
Throughout history, theological writers have espoused the importance of reading the “Book of Nature” to gain a greater understanding of divine will. More recently, the discipline of Ecosemiotics has conceptualized the environment as a text that is authored by both human and nonhuman life forms. Still other metaphors for the environment invoke human authorship for their function. For example, the image of an “ecological footprint,” often used by environmentalists, assumes that the imprint of human life on the world is as unintentional or even as unavoidable as footfalls across a lawn. Landscape gardening is governed by the same principle: it is desirable to alter one’s surroundings by carefully choosing and arranging plants for style, and even genre—in this case for visual effect—to be viewed and even consumed by an audience. Sounds like writing, doesn’t it?
The problem with each of these metaphors is that they suggest that the nonhuman natural world can, or must be “read” and understood by humans. Donna Haraway writes that “Nature is only the raw material of culture, appropriated, preserved, enslaved, exalted, or otherwise made flexible for disposal by culture in the logic of capitalist colonialism.” In my presentation I build upon Haraway’s argument by arguing that “nature” is a text humans have “authored” out of the “raw materials” of the world, and that our current conceptions of human interaction with(in) this “nature” figure meaning-making as a one-way street.
These questions remain: is it possible to “give voice” to “nature” as many well-meaning nature writers have attempted? Or could it be that “nature” writing has, all along, been contesting and silencing the authorship of the natural world? Furthermore, should we be challenging the authorship inherent in human activity in order to create spaces of nonhuman biological agency—and authorship? Perhaps nonhuman authorship is already occurring in the world, and we have only to recognize and validate it. The implications of such an acknowledgment range from a greater recognition of human and machine alterations of the world, machine authorship of human life, and perhaps even ways in which chemicals whose structures cannot be viewed by the biological human eye author the lives and possibilities of the creatures they encounter and subsequently inhabit.