Essay: Nature So-called
Nature is not what it used to be. Or at least that is what we may think, when we look at the way humans and their technologies have treated nature. When we speak of “nature”, however, we are essentially talking about our relationship with nature, never nature itself. What we refer to as “nature” or “natural” has always been as much about what we see, as it is about what we think is “out there”. And trying to bring nature into view is equally ambivalent. Images of nature cannot be taken at face value either. It is not the straightforward case of “what we see, is what we get”. What is at stake are our cultural perceptions of nature. In viewing “nature” we can only talk about what we call “nature”.
If indeed our relationships with nature are at the heart of our perceptions, images of nature will hold a key in showing us ‘nature so-called’. Behind different images of ‘nature’ lie diverse perceptions of what we call nature. One cannot view the world ‘ natural or otherwise ‘ without some form of perceptual bias. Our cultural lenses cannot be not tainted. As we try and picture ‘nature so-called’, we can learn from cultural anthropology: that where we (or they) draw the line between ‘nature’ and ‘non-nature’ is always culturally constructed and changes over time. It is that line which, at best, we can try and make visible.
So what is nature and what is not, has always (and will be) a matter of contention. Nature remains an issue which can be looked at, literally. And in today’s ‘technological culture’, the images and words we use to capture ‘nature so-called’ reveal that technology and media are as much part of our ecology as is ‘nature’. In fact, the whole relationship between what we categorise as ‘nature’ and what we call ‘culture’ may have to be re-thought, in the light of our current ability to manipulate both. In the age of genetic engineering, artificial beaches and virtual environments, what we used to call ‘nature’ has become an object of human design. In our world, so-called ‘nature’ has become a cultural construct (whilst ‘culture’ has become ‘technological’). In this world it is perhaps fitting that we can now ‘ thanks again to our technologies ‘ also manipulate the images of nature. Today we have many images of nature. But perhaps more fundamentally, we also have many ‘natures’ that make up our environments. Multiple natures which co-exist alongside one another, or that fuse into hybrids, or compete. Exploring and depicting these ‘natures’, confronts us with different kinds of landscapes and realities. Multiple images of multiple natures expose the ‘new ecology’ in which we now find ourselves, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. And by speaking of of ‘Next Nature’ we can try and follow how the social meanings of so-called nature is changing over time. We can track the dynamics of so-called nature, yet never pin down what nature ‘really’ is.
A final observation on the discourse of a cultural politics. Whilst we may be concerned about the environmental consequences of our modern life-styles (and we should), we cannot take pristine nature as our singular reference point. It is in the context of contemporary ‘technological culture’ that we have to debate so-called nature. Far from proclaiming ‘the end of nature’ (as some observers have done), it prompts us to reflect critically on the ways we wish to design nature into our environments, our life-styles, and our experiences. What is nature and what is not may not be the real issue. Rather, ‘nature so-called’ can shift our attention to one of the key questions in cultural environmental politics: What kind of nature do we want?
Written by Michiel Schwarz, published in Next Nature Paperback, 2005 and presented at Visual Powershow 20 january 2005, Paradiso, Amsterdam