2008-09 Pembroke Seminar: Visions of Nature

"Visions of Nature: Constructing the Cultural Other"
Leslie Bostrom
Chesler-Mallow Senior Faculty Research Fellow, Pembroke Center

In 2008-09, the Pembroke Seminar looked at representations of nature across cultures and disciplines and through history. Humans objectify, admire, exploit, and worship nature. Those in the West have an uneasy and contradictory relationship with the natural world, being of it as animals yet simultaneously observing, consuming, and attempting to control it. Through the visual arts and popular media, through literature, philosophy, aesthetics, and science, through gardening, landscaping, and architecture, humans represent their relationships with nature. Nature can be a kind of dark mirror, reflecting back one’s desires and fears, loaded with contradictions and colonial yearnings. People consume it and attempt to control it, yet revere it and attempt to preserve it. It is thought to be fragile yet indestructible, finite yet cyclical, dangerous yet restful. Notions of the natural are employed to build theories of the human, as in human naturenatural law, natural gifts, naturalintelligence. On the one hand, there is something essentially natural about humans, some sort of authentic animal core; on the other, there are fantasies of the wild, as if there were a territory of purenature excluding the human predator. The Western ethical relationship to nature is similarly ambivalent: on one hand, nature is pure and uncorrupted by human desire; on the other, nature is by definition the location of sin, the refusal or inability to recognize divine intervention and moral authority-- the “Noble Savage” vs. “Lord of the Flies.”

The seminar looked at how such ambivalences toward nature have driven Western cultural aspirations. It also examined formations that emerge from non-Western representations of nature. What are the issues raised in an examination of the differing attitudes of the Yanomami and Kapayó, both indigenous peoples, toward the Amazonian rain forest? What is the function of the garden in Islamic paintings of the sixteenth century? How do images from nature frame family relationships in Indian film? How did landscape painting of Dynastic China intersect with dominant cultural and political narratives?

The development of Western landscape painting parallels the creation of aesthetics in European philosophy along with the construction of the modern subject. Narratives of nature are embedded in political ideologies such as individualism, altruism, fascism, and democracy. How do animals frame the subject identity of humans? What do scientific, visual, and literary depictions of animals reveal about human “nature”? How is the “human animal” a cultural artifact? How does the cultural definition of “human nature” affect the narrative of its history?

The seminar looked at the ways visions and narratives of nature mark gender. How are representations of nature enlisted as ideology in the politics of sex and power? In some cultures, the relationship to the sexual is marked by a strong ambivalence toward the “animal.” How do notions and fantasies of nature affect notions and representations of gendered bodies? What are the ideological roles of nature in philosophies of child development and psychosexual maturation?

Representations of nature have contributed to colonial ambitions as well as to anti-colonial resistance. How has nature been classified, ordered, collected, and portrayed in the service of colonialism? What is “Natural History”? What do we learn by tracing the evolution of the Museum of Natural History from curio cabinet to diorama? How did the invention of illusionary space affect the depictions of nature and influence (or inhibit?) cultural ambition? What is the semiotics of the “frontier”? Where is nature in “cyberspace”? When does landscape become wilderness and wilderness become “park”? Economic systems, whether capitalist or marxist, have ambivalent relationships to nature, one of both preservation and exploitation. How do visions of nature shape the politics of work and class? In Europe and America, environmental concerns are often a preoccupation of elite classes. How do economic interests shape definitions of the natural, as, for example, in genetic engineering and in medicine, and what are the definitions and effects of ecological crises such as Global Warming?