Tag: nature

Foucault, scientific knowledge and climate change

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to make the sign speak and to discover their meaning, hermeneutics; let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the sign, to define what constitutes them as signs and to know how and by what laws they are linked, semiology: the sixteenth century superimposed hermeneutics and semiology in the form of similitude… ‘Nature’ is trapped in the thin layer that holds semiology and hermeneutics one above the other, it is neither mysterious nor veiled, it offers itself to our cognition, which it sometimes leads astray, only in so far as this superimposition necessarily includes a slight degree of non-coincidence between the resemblances.

The truth of all these marks – whether they are woven into nature itself or whether they exist in lines on parchments or in libraries – is everywhere the same: coeval with institution of God.

Michel Foucault, (1970) [1966]. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Tr. A. M. S. Smith. London: Tavistock, pp. 33, 38.

Random thoughts in response
In The Order of Things, Foucault describes a scientific view of the world far removed from our own. This view saw the world as a large book to be read, with signs placed there by God to help humans live and find their way in the world. The mysteries of the universe could be read by paying attention to, and interpreting these signs, reading the works of those who had already interpreted these signs and by knowing that the highest cosmic spheres could be seen in operations in the human body itself and the smallest object of nature. The microcosm mirrored the macrocosm.

This view of nature also placed humans in a very different power relation to ‘nature’ from the one which underlies current scientific knowledge. Humans relied on the beneficence of God to provide them with signs to guide them through the world. ‘Nature’ was not given to them, as in the modern view, as something over which they could exercise unlimited sovereign power without the attenuating responsibility which marks even the exercise of pastoral power. It must be said, however, that elements of pastoral power (questionable as they may be) entailing ideas of some kind of responsibility and duty of care have become stronger over the last fifty years with regards to ‘nature’.

The notion of climate change and the debate over to what extent human activity is contributing to this process is one that is at present the subject of acrimonious public debate, even entailing death threats against hapless climate scientists. For me, however, the immediate problem is the chemical poisoning and toxic modification of our environment – of our food, water and air supplies and general environment. This is already having demonstrable effects on people’s health and well-being and that of plants and animals, not to mention eliminating some species of plants and animals altogether. Human impact on climate change is but a subset of these wider problems and we should perhaps, not just publicly address the climate change factors but these others as all part of the same problem.

This problem is essentially one of how we philosophically position ourselves in relation to our environment. The current view which underpins scientific and technical knowledge and which dates back to Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is an instrumentalist – indeed a predatory one – if we take it to its logical conclusion. It is the view that we exist in a hierarchical power relation to the world – a world which has been given to humans as top of the evolutionary scale and the chosen of God, to use as they please with impunity. It is a view which closely aligns with ideas and practices of colonialism, social Darwinism and mercantilism which saw their apotheosis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and which continue to operate in a variety of forms.

If we can change this philosophical view to a more co-operative one which promotes a harmonious and respectful interaction with our social and physical environment, then perhaps the effects might not be so destructive. Relations of co-operation, accommodation and understanding, rather than relations of power, domination and exploitation.

One of the problems with the climate change debate is that it is highly politicised and also tends to focus people on the grand scale (‘this will happen in the future and over there’) allowing many people to simply switch off either in confusion or irritation in the face of a continual barrage of political and media posturing. If, however, direct and immediate and local threats to people’s health and lifestyles are demonstrated, they might be more willing to come to the party. There are, of course, enormous vested interests in the food, mineral resources and manufacturing industries that seek to prevent these threats from becoming a matter of public debate.

I am however an optimist and believe in people’s endless capacity to address problems and come up with creative solutions. It is not too late. The mere fact that we haven’t been globally nuked yet, given the arsenals out there is, I think, grounds for optimism. There is also wide evidence that a view and practice of scientific knowledge that is based more on cooperation than exploitation is starting to gain growing traction. (See the work of Bruno Latour, and recent work on the ethics of objects).

With thanks to Nicholas Cavanagh for providing the opportunity to think about these issues in response to a short piece he wrote on the political debate around climate change.

Avatar (2009)

NB: Spoiler alert!
My rating:**

Somewhat biased quick plot summary
A corporation supported by the military has its eye on a rare mineral called unobtanium which can be found in large quantities on a planet called Pandora. This planet is covered by primeval forest and inhabited by blue ‘noble savages’ with cultures reminiscent of those of indigenous North Americans. Scientists have also tagged along for the ride and have grown Pandoran bodies in vats to which they are able to transfer their human consciousnesses. The hero of the story, a disabled war veteran, is transferred into one of these bodies, is accepted into a tree tribe, falls in love with the daughter of the chief, ‘goes native’ and shows said natives how to rid themselves of evil Earth military industrial alliance.

I will take the opportunity to weigh in with the countless other comments on James Cameron’s new film Avatar. I will begin by saying that watching a film in 3D is a fun experience, blue is a lovely colour and plants that glow in the dark are great to look at. But all this graphical expertise is sadly let down by a story which is a rather pallid string of Disney cliches laced with highly questionnable social and political messages.

I always find American militarism in films extremely irritating. Militarism and nuking everything in sight is a common solution in American science fiction. As a variation on the theme, this film expresses moral outrage at these usual procedures and proposes another set of cliches in their place – a rather depressing set of cliches actually. Thus we are exhorted to all get back to nature and lose ourselves in the exotic Other, rather than trying to find a workable social solution to the situation in hand. Our science and knowledge is clearly useless and scientists are a bunch of effete intellectuals. The military industrial complex is populated by power and resource hungry psychopaths. It is far better to live in a dangerous jungle with no modern comforts, cinemas, libraries or modern medical science.

The protagonist completely loses himself in the Other, even to the extent of abandoning his clearly inferior and disabled human body, and the humans (described as ‘aliens’ at the end of the film) are sent packing, back to their ‘dying world’, after being defeated by some stroppy armoured dinosaurs and bows and arrows mobilised by the human outsider. This outsider, in the fine tradition of other American films such as A Gentleman’s Agreement, Tootsie, Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai , demonstrates that the white American male is the only one who can show less powerful groups (Jews, women, Native Americans, fading Japanese warrior elites etc.) the way to salvation.

I personally would have liked to have seen the planet (which is clearly modelled on Gaia principles) come up with some nifty science fiction method of ridding itself of the humans. Giant trees uprooting themselves and joining the battle like the ents in Lord of the Rings, or a strange energy immobilising all the technology. Alternately (or additionally!) I would have liked to have seen the humans come to some kind of realisation and engage in the beginnings of social change and discussion rather than just a blanket self-destruct and expression of self-hatred.

It is hard to see why this film is described as ‘left-wing’ (or ‘liberal’ to use American terminology) – when its message is so conservative, harking back as it does, to hoary old myths of the noble savage and the purity of nature.