Thursday, April 13, 2017
Against nature posted by Richard SeymourWe are being asked to believe. That is the first thing to take note of. We are exhorted to put aside doubt in the existence of human nature, and believe. The very fact that the argument is put in these terms is surely no accident. If 'human nature' were a self-evident reality that we could all agree on, there would be no need to believe. I don't "believe" in water, or air, or the colour blue; I can only believe in things that I can't know. Belief, in a sense, belongs to the register of certainty, but not knowledge.
Now the article goes on to claim that 'human nature' is something that we can know, but the conception that it offers is comparable to that other chestnut of contemporary discourse, 'British values'. Humans need to eat. Well, what's so special about that? Lots of animals need to eat. Humans need warmth. So do cockroaches. Humans are vulnerable to disease and organic decay. So is vegetation. Humans need to drink. So does Nigel Farage. That isn't 'human nature', that's just 'nature'.
The argument only really becomes interesting, and germane to the human, when it claims the existence of a human need, rooted in nature, for 'dignity' and 'autonomy'. But these are surely not needs in the sense that food and air are needs. They are the names for preferences, or desires, which are proper to linguistic creatures.
But once we are talking about language and desire, we are no longer strictly speaking talking about nature, because language and desire are historically and socially produced. Language marks the point at which the human animal makes a half-leap from nature to culture. In other words, as soon as you get to the characteristic that makes us properly human -- the fact that we are linguistic creatures -- you're already no longer in the domain of nature (indeed, you were never really in it).
And it is just as well to recognise this, because otherwise the argument becomes terribly tricky for socialists. Since the terms 'autonomy' and 'dignity' are glittering generalities which everyone is supposed to believe in (if only for themselves), having no intrinsic, uncontested, unhistorical, natural, given content, you have to engage in some logical gymnastics.
You can try to give these terms some content, at which point you risk bumping into all manner of phenomena which contradict them. For example, you might find that some people (maybe some Trump voters) will give up what you have defined as 'autonomy', in order to deprive others of it. Having done that, you can then try to question-beggingly define all apparently unavailing phenomena as a thwarted, deflected attempt at achieving these ends. It becomes even more complicated if you do try to relate the more unsavoury aspects of human behaviour to 'human nature'.
Suppose we abandon the distinction between need and desire, and concede that we do indeed have a need for 'autonomy' and 'dignity', howsoever defined, because of 'human nature'. Shouldn't we also make space for such needs as aggression, violence, domination, sadism, and omnipotence? On what ground do we insist that these are not needs while autonomy and dignity are? Eventually, if we were to proceed like this, we could end up with a concept of 'human nature' that covered every possible type of desire by redescribing it as a 'need', and every possibly type of action by redescribing it as an attempt to realise a 'need'. But then it would just be tautologous rather than informative. We would 'believe' in human nature, but to no avail.
A lot of the persuasive power of these types of argument derive from the idea that to doubt the existence of 'human nature' is to subscribe to a "blank slate" thesis. This is an idea shared by Steven Pinker and the author of this piece. Of course, even a "blank slate" is never really blank. It must have certain active qualities which enable/constrain inscription. But the real problem with a "blank slate" thesis, is that a slate is fairly limited in what it can be. It is there to be written on, or not.
As the biologist Steve Rose puts it, humans are 'radically indeterminate'. In part, this is because it is in the 'nature' of living systems to be like that, but language opens up a new kind of indeterminacy. To say that we are radically indeterminate does not entail that we have no organic constitution, but that this does not determine whether we are 'good' or 'bad', kind or selfish, nurturing or violent, sexist or egalitarian, or whether we prefer protection to autonomy, or domination to dignity, and so on. These things, the desires and behaviours which are characteristically human, are the contested product of history.
This brings us back to the major problem with speaking about 'human nature', which is that humans are distinctly unnatural creatures. Indeed, the very separation of nature and culture becomes problematic once humans enter the frame (meaning, it has always been problematic, since this conceptual cleavage is a human invention). As soon as human beings learned to make fire, they became co-constituted by technology (the body being nourished and reproduced by digesting cooked food). There is not a single human organic capacity that is not intricated with technology, culture and political power. Haraway's term "natureculture" is a more apt way to describe the material realities of human bodies and their relevance to politics.
'Human nature' is a contradiction in terms.