Raising the memory of nature : animals, nonidentity and enlightenment thought.
Type of content
Society’s current experience of nature is ambiguous. Just as nature proves severely affected by human activities and vulnerable, it also appears threatening to us. Although the changes in nature have been perceived for long as an ecological crisis, this experience and the challenges it provides have remained persistently exigent over the last four decades. As a consequence, our epistemological understanding of nature and culture as separate entities has been inherently shaken. My study is located among ecocritical attempts to negotiate these experiences. Immanent critiques of E. O. Wilson’s and Bruno Latour’s epistemologies exemplify how we cannot escape the dualism in society’s relationship to nature by simply declaring nature’s and culture’s unity. Relying on the social philosophy of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, I instead consider the dualism as historically both true and false, and argue that instrumental reason provides a socio-psychological barrier to transcending the way Western society relates to nature. Central to the situation’s perpetuation is the confidence that the object of knowledge can be adequately and steadily identified in knowledge. Based on Adorno’s negative dialectics, I develop a model of cognition that works through the dualism within the knowing subject and in its relation to animals. This model is substantiated in the context of Enlightenment thought. A reconstruction of the development of René Descartes’ (1596–1650) epistemology in relation to his philosophy of nature and the place of animals within it shows the animal as particularly resistant to Descartes’ conceptual identification. In the writings on animal behaviour of Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) this resistance further manifests as a self-mediation of animals, which denotes the limits to their conceptual assimilation. Maria Sibylla Merian’s (1647–1717) aesthetically mediated insect studies capture this tension between species commonalities and unique particularities, and represent the single specimens as nonidentical individuals. Through critical engagement with these works, my study develops a cognitive approach to nature that preserves its object as qualitatively mediated between universal and particular properties, and inherently nonidentical. Simultaneously, it recovers the animal as an object of knowledge particularly resistant to identificatory thought. Consolidating these two insights, aesthetic mediation of animals provides an experience that reveals to the subject its limited power over the objects and which is capable of raising the memory of nature within the subject.