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Friday, September 03, 2010

Our logical leaps: monkey shines in the artificial paradise

The Lynn White thesis, advanced in his 1967 article, The Historical roots of our Ecological Crisis, is that Christianity provided a paradigm that allowed the “West” to develop the kind of mechanical technologies that subordinated the whole of nature to man. This isn’t an original thesis, nor does White claim it as such. The young Hegelians present a similar picture of the historical meaning of Christianity. What was original with White is the thesis that this subordination is at the root of our present ecological crisis.

LI has already put his fork and knife into this article, as it doesn’t accord with our sense of before and after. We locate the shift of the human limit in the early modern era. And we maintain that the ‘subordination’ of creation to man and is different in kind from the subordination of nature to man.

Here is Lynn White:

Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as the 2nd century both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.

At the level of the common people this worked out in an interesting way. In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible
to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their
ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook,
it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation,
and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it
possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural

LI’s discussion of Vico’s doctrine that verum est factum gives us a hold on what is missing in Lynn White’s rather romantic historiography. For Vico’s modern anti-modernism is precisely concerned with the conflation between mechanical and real understanding. Now, this may seem like almost nothing, but it has roots in a much greater thing, the main thing, the thing so casually overlooked in White’s hedging phrase that man shares “in great measure’ God’s transcendence of nature. In fact, the word "nature" avoids the word, the non-scholarly word, ‘creation” – which is the historically interesting word, here. It is part of the creation of the non-Western other that the West is the home of the nature/culture divide, and the other is the home of a groovier monism. Philippe Descola, for instance, has made much of the idea that there is no divide between society and nature for the Jivaro among whom he did his fieldwork. That, instead, the Jivaro “consider the plants and the animals like persons with whom one can communicate in certain circumstances.” And this simple insight has led to further insights about the lack of a certain structure – totemism – in the Western world.

This is, on one level, true. On another level, however, it fails to penetrate the sheath of the modern, the womb of the artificial paradise in which our ethnographic fieldworkers have their breathe and bodies. LI would contend that the famed modern ideology critic – that God is made by man in his image, in some unconscious moment of ilynx that occurs throughout the premodern era in universal history – imports into that era an idea of the made, the mechanically made, that significantly distorts the idea of creation. It might seem that Vico’s idea that there is a special, interior understanding in making is part of the White mythology – that man takes, once again, a transcendental distance from nature in a symmetry that can never really be sustained, and produces, infinitely, its supplements. But I think this ignores the way in which Vico’s critique of the geometric method and the appeal to God the maker go together. Vico is not urging their synthesis – not leading us to the world of models and bullet pointed instruction sheets. Rather, he is pointing to the transcendental blind spot that makes man’s participation in making essentially different from God’s, not quantitatively – we just need better science and tools – but qualitatively. Dominion is not and can never be making, and the creatures made by man – fire, wheel, telescope and automaton – are not made in the same way, with the same gesture, as is inherent in divine making.


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