User:Jasper van Loenen/RWRM/review-draft
When browsing on a book market I stumbled upon a small book with bright colored bars (including some gradients), an icon and big typography on its cover: this most be something made by Mieke Gerritzen.
Gerritzen is both the author and the designer of ‘Next Nature’ (2005). The book is basically a short essay in which she reflects on how our view on nature changes with our changing culture. Nature used to stand for something wild and not man made, but now, nature in that sense is disappearing. More and more we are able to shape nature to our will, converting it from nature to culture. On the side there are elements from our culture, like our technology, that are moving more towards nature - or how we used to perceive nature.
She has some interesting points about these changes and the way they influence our perception of things. For instance: she asks the viewer to look around and note the most natural thing in sight. I was sitting in the train when I read this and thought the fast changing scenery would give me an advantage, but when you look around you, not notice how every little bit of nature has been planned. From the groups of trees that stand around farmhouses to break the wind, to the little strip of grass that has been allowed to grow in the middle of the highway. Her answer was still the right one: I - together with my fellow travelers - was the most natural thing in sight.
In about 140 pages of big text, repeating patterns, images and icons, she goes on to explain how we - humans - learned to understand nature. Our growing knowledge of “trees, plants, animals, atoms and climate” (p. 006) have enabled us to change its form and behavior to fit our needs. But this power to change nature will also have effect on the way we will look at - this previously untamed - nature. This struck me most when Gerritzen quotes McKibben as he says: “What will it mean to come across a rabbit in the woods after genetically engineered ‘rabbits’ are widespread? Why would we have any more reverence, or even affection, for such a rabbit than we would have for a Coke bottle?” (p. 038). The moment you are able to shape something as complex and ‘wild’ as an animal and can decide its color, size, behavior, etc., it really has become a piece of technology or a product - as I read this paragraph in the book, I saw a rabbit in the meadow next to the train tracks and couldn’t help to think what things you would be able to change: somewhat shorter ears, a bigger tail and glow in the dark fur might be fun.
This notion of nature becoming culture is something that is repeated multiple times - a bit too often even. And while this is an easy point to understand, she doesn’t really pay any attention to the second statement made in her introduction - elements from culture turning into nature. One of the few times she mentions it is when she says that “Our next nature arises from cultural products that have become so complex that the only way we can relate to them is in terms of a man-nature relationship.” (p. 040) but this doesn’t rhyme with her earlier statement “Nature is untouched by man, it is still unspoiled.” (p. 010) since the technology is far from untouched by men - it was created by them.
Gerritzen fantasizes about technology that will connect different house-hold appliances and can be embedded in such a way that it will become invisible. She talks about autonomous robots, doing there chores without needing our instructions or guidance, as if they have their own will. But the fact that it is invisible and controlling itself doesn’t mean it is changing into nature. How does one of these robots differ from the genetically modified rabbit? Where the rabbit gets engineered to become a piece of editable technology, the autonomous technology gets nowhere near ‘wild’.
But this whole notion of what is nature and what is not is already tainted by culture itself. In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour quotes Philippe Descola who mentions a native tribe, the Achuar, who “do not (...) share this antinomy between two closed and irremediably opposed worlds: the cultural world of human society and the natural world of animal society.” There are areas where one can flow into the other, but there is also a boundary between them: “(...) there is nevertheless a certain point at which the continuum of sociability breaks down, yielding to a wild world inexorably foreign to humans. Incomparably smaller than the realm of culture, this little piece of nature includes the set of things with which communication cannot be established.”
I think ‘communication’ in this case can be explained in different ways. Knowing how something works lets us control it, send messages to it - even if they’re just going in one direction. If you are able to control the genes of a rabbit, it is a way of communicating with it. Gerritzen defines nature as things that we do not yet control, but when we loosen the control on our technology to let it work on its own - as with the internet of things - does it turn into nature, as she claims? I don’t think it does. Even though or little vacuum robot seems to operate on its own, without us having to tell it what to do, without communicating with it, it is still made by men who told it how to behave. But this whole system of having nature versus culture can’t exist since the first spawns from the latter. “(...) the very notion of culture is an artifact created by bracketing Nature off. Cultures - different or universal - do not exist, any more than Nature does.” Instead of having culture and nature fight each other, there is a collective. “Even at the worst moments of the Western imperium, it was never a matter of clearly separating the Laws of Nature from social conventions once and for all. It was always a matter of constructing collectives by mixing a certain type of nonhumans and a certain type of humans (...).” (Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 1994). This is something Latour later refined in Politics of Nature (2004). “This collective will be formed around problems, which will then be “solved” by the various representations of groups that are involved in the problem. Because this collective is formed around problems it will constantly change its assembly to whatever is relevant at the time and therefore will be continuously changing and reevaluating itself.” (van Leeuwen, Sjoerd, thesis 2010).
When there is something we claim for culture, it enters the collective. Our technology that weaves itself into our lives doesn’t leave culture to become nature, it finds a new place in the collective. A place that is not fixed and might again, over time, find a new place.