Incoming Transmission: Thanatophobia and the Future of the Human Body (Part 4: Note on Relativism)
Questions of Degree: Are we to presume that something like a body (or a city for that matter) was ever in a ‘natural’, ‘organic’, or ‘whole’ condition? If so, we might yearn for an earlier configuration. We might think that the ‘subject’, for example, is in a bad way. We may want to hearken back to some pre-lapsarian point, an Edenic wholeness, before the rise of the scientific and the technical.
But it is not, we might argue, that contemporary tools and techniques have ripped us from some state of nature. There never was, that argument holds, a state of nature. We have, from the very outset, been characterized by mixture, hybridity and heteogeneity. One might offer a conjecture that when he was born, inside his mother’s womb, before entering into the world, that he was ‘pure’. We respond by reminding him that even inside the womb, did he not breathe the same air that his mother did, inhaling the same mixture of carbon, car exhaust and industrial chemicals?
We would remind him that even the ‘natural world’, the forests, the vegetation, the landscape – were all shaped by something or someone, that the trees in one environmental region were not native to that region, arriving there as seeds trapped in the boots of early settlers, carried by wind currents, and shuffled around by continental drifts, etc… The question of the ‘natural’ was impossible long before Baudrillard et al. declared it so. The ‘natural’, upon interrogation, unravels, and proves to be an utterly useless concept.
So, my observations in earlier posts regarding the ‘sea of technologies’ that are coming to act on and in our bodies and communities, are not, perhaps, to be understood as claims signalling a rift between a ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ condition, but pointing out the degree to which this always heterogeneous condition has made itself present. As our tools have multiplied in complexity, size and number, so our heterogeneity stares us in the face.
Nor, would I ever claim that simply because our ontology is one of mixture, it is permissible to allow techniques to be developed unchecked. After all, a denial of the ‘natural’ is not a denial of the brute fact that things have processes and workings of their own. While things cannot be described as ‘natural’, it would be an obvious error to claim that all things are simply social constructions. There is, after all, wisdom in being able to accept the innate functioning of a thing while recognizing the impossibility of an attempt to characterize any point of its development as ‘natural’.
What is a Forest?: Returning to the example of the forest we can say three things:
Firstly, that there are indeed objects in the forest (that we call ‘trees’) that, via processes that occur irrespective of any characterization/ scientization of them, provide our lungs with a fresh source of oxygen, keeping us alive. Whether or not we construct new social categorizations/meanings for these objects in the forest has no (inherent-immediate-direct) bearing on the objects themselves, their processes subsist.
Secondly, and directly related to the first point, is that the forest itself is socially constructed, not a social construction. Trees and groupings of trees (forests) have certainly carried different connotations across history and time. For instance, the wilderness has not always been a source of panacea and relief as it is now, where we flock to get ‘away’ from the noise and hubbub of the city (Cronon, W. “The trouble with wilderness or, getting back to the wrong nature”). It was, only two hundred years ago, a site of terrifying anxiety and worry. While the Nature Company can package and sell the ‘sounds of nature’ to customers on compact-disc, the brute material fact remains that both the call of loon and the compact-disc itself are immune to the social meaning offered: the loon has materiality and processes of its own, the compact disc is constructed quite literally out of petroleum!
Thirdly, the forest (both the trees and their oxygenating processes and the social constructions it connotes (panacea/relief, terror/anxiety) ) can in no way be described as natural.
Any study into the history of a part (a single tree) or whole (the forest itself) would find it extraordinarily difficult (if not impossible) to claim that either of these processes or constructions occurs in a vacuum. The researcher may discover that the trees are actually not native to that particular geographical area, arriving over thousands of years by plate tectonics or in the soles of European settlers. She may likewise discover that at different periods of time the forest was used in relation to how the cultures that inhabited it came to regard.
Locating some originary relation to the forest would be ill fated.
Cybject is nothing more than a thought experiment.