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Modernity and nature

In this video, Dr Vera Alexander discusses the relationship between nature and humans. Can nature be free of human interference?
What is nature? Off the cuff, something original, unprocessed, free from human manipulation. But most of what we think of as nature is partly human artifice. Look out your window. Here’s mine for example. Do you see anything you would describe as natural? The plants you see may fall under the heading of nature because this category includes plants, animals, and minerals, land and seascapes, the weather, the seasons, elements. But the trees you see here are chosen and cared for by human beings. Chances are, they aren’t even European in origin. They may have been imported and manipulated to survive here. When we think of nature as something found rather than made, this concept of nature is a human confection.
It is constituted through language, stories, and images. Nature is in an ambivalent relationship with culture. Humans are both a part of nature and apart from it. Throughout European literature, civilisation and modernisation have been measured by way of dominion, rule over nature, as emphasised in the Bible, Europe’s master narrative. The biblical view is illustrated by Wordsworth’s romantic poem, the lyrical I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. So human emotion is projected onto the cloud. And a field full of narcissi becomes anthropomorphised into a crowd of girlie flowers that dance. Nature matters because of what it does to and for humans. Food, property, object of artistic contemplation, healthy recreational retreat from the city.
Human beings use and exploit nature, both practically, for instance in colonialism, and metaphorically. The tension between humans and nature intensifies in modernity. Nature does not modernise. Evolution happens too slowly for us to grasp. We can’t watch attentively for a million years for an organ to disappear. What we see is circles of growth and decay and cycles, seasons for example. Modernisation involves turning wilderness into pasture, redirecting rivers, splitting the atom, and modifying the human genome. At the same time, modernity is associated with the discovery that attempts to advance beyond nature have unforeseen consequences. The first national parks for nature preservation were formed in the 1870s. So the belief in human centrality and infallibility becomes eroded.
Europe’s literary representations of nature reflect human relationships with nature, and how they change in modernity. Older literary images of nature use nature as a background for human activities. They think of nature as a book of life containing messages from God. Poems abound with nostalgic images of nature as a pastoral idyll juxtaposed to city life. Nature was gendered into a Mother Earth. Flowers became a code for human sexuality. Animal parables continue as popular plots in children’s writing. More recent texts stress interdependency and our dependence on nature, often as expressions of a green politics. Dystopian warnings are sounded about the destruction of the biosphere and climate change. Messages of sustainability abound as nature’s powers of renewal are stressed beyond breaking point.
Eco-thrillers follow apocalyptic plots depicting nature as a zombie force that mindlessly hunts and haunts humans. More moderate visions include place or travel writers who stress the importance of observation in our relations to nature. A crucial development is for depictions of nature as a general category with a capital N, to give way to specific narratives dedicated to one particular place, or landscape, or plant, or animal, as Steve Milder’s case will show later this week. I leave you with an ongoing challenge faced in modern European literature. How to think beyond old power relations and to do justice to nature’s otherness. Having power over nature does not equal having knowledge, insight, or understanding. Human beings and nature function in radically different ways.
We define ourselves through language. Most of nature lies outside language and does not fit logocentric organisation. You can’t talk a plant into growing, think like a mountain, or negotiate with a tsunami. Any attempt to contain nature, even through literary imagination, is inevitably limited by human perception. There is no such thing as true control over nature, even in modernity.
In this video, Dr Vera Alexander discusses the relationship between nature and humans. Can nature be free of human interference? Can we think about nature from a non-human perspective?
We think of nature as unaffected by humans: plants are free to grow, the rain falls down whether we like it or not. At the same time, this idea of nature comes from human thinking and is supported by language, images and stories. This is the paradox of nature: we can only express the absence of human influences through very human systems of languages and representation. Humans seem central to nature, in whatever way we think about it.
At the same time, modernity is about undoing human centrality. A ‘green consciousness’ has emerged, which states that nature has inherent value regardless of human influence. Humans are in a dependent relationship with nature: greenhouse gasses don’t only change the environment, they will change human life, too. The challenge is how to think about this relationship, and how to do it justice in literature, film, art and politics.
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European Culture and Politics

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