Mieke Gerritzen on Tue, 29 Apr 2008 06:01:12 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Real Nature is not Green

(see below: announcement Next Nature event May 17 Los Angeles)

by Koert van Mensvoort

At the edge of the woods along the motorway near the Dutch town of =20
Bloemendaal, there stands a mobile telephone mast disguised as a pine =20=

tree. This mast is not nature: at best, it is a picture of nature. It =20=

is an illustration, like a landscape painting hanging over the sofa. =20
Do we have genuine experiences of nature any more? Or are we living =20
in a picture of it?

In the Netherlands, every square meter of ground is a man-made =20
landscape: original nature is nowhere to be found. The =20
Oostvaardersplassen =E2=80=93 which make up one of the Netherlands=E2=80=99=
 most =20
important nature reserves =E2=80=93 were, after the land was reclaimed, =20=

originally an industrial site; they were only turned into a nature =20
reserve later. Even the =E2=80=98Green Heart=E2=80=99 at the center of =
the most =20
densely populated part of Netherlands is in actual fact a medieval =20
industrial area, which was originally reclaimed for turf-cutting. =20
Our =E2=80=98nature reserves=E2=80=99 are thus in fact =E2=80=98culture =
reserves=E2=80=99 =20
shaped by human activity. =E2=80=9CGod created the world, with the =
exception =20
of the Netherlands. That the Dutch created themselves=E2=80=9D=C2=9D, as =
Voltaire put it in the eighteenth century. And ever since, we have =20
been doing everything we can to live up to his pronouncement. Today, =20
we even actively design and build nature in the Netherlands. =20
Prehistoric forests are being planted in locations designated by =20
bureaucrats: our image of Nature is being carefully constructed in a =20
recreational simulation (a =E2=80=98regeneration of our lost =
heritage=E2=80=99, as =20
the nature-builders call it themselves [1]). Traditional cattle =20
breeds are even being placed in this so-called =E2=80=98new nature=E2=80=99=
 [2]. =20
The original wild ox unfortunately became extinct in 1627, but the =20
Scottish Highlander is an acceptable alternative. These cattle know =20
what they=E2=80=99re supposed to do: graze, under orders of the forestry =
service. Thanks to them, the landscape stays clear instead of =20
becoming overgrown (we find this attractive, as it reminds us of =20
famous 17th-century landscape paintings). In theory, the animals are =20
supposed to look after themselves, but in winter the forestry service =20=

is willing to give them a bit of extra food. It also removes dead =20
animals, lest walkers be offended by a cow rotting on the footpath. =20
In our culture, nature is continually presented as a lost world. It =20
is associated with originality, yet appears only once it has =20
disappeared. Our experience of nature is a retro effect [3].

It is a widespread misconception that nature is always calm, peaceful =20=

and harmonious: genuine nature can be wild, cruel and unpredictable. =20
Our contemporary experience of nature is chiefly a recreational one =20
[4]: Sunday afternoon scenery; Disneyland for grown-ups. Indeed, lots =20=

of money is required to maintain the illusion. But nature is also a =20
terrific marketing tool: there are Alligator garden tools, Jaguar =20
convertibles, Puma trainers. Natural metaphors give us a familiar =20
feeling of recognition. In commercials cars always drive through =20
beautiful untouched landscapes. Strange that in this make-believe =20
countryside there is not a billboard in sight, while logos and brands =20=

are so omnipresent in our environment, we can probably tell them =20
apart better than we can bird or tree species. In my neighborhood, =20
four-wheel-drives have become an integral part of the street scene. =20
These SUVs (sport utility vehicles, previously known as Jeeps or all-=20
terrain-vehicles) have formidable names like Skyline, Explorer, =20
Conquerer and Landwind. Luckily, you can buy spray-on mud for =20
spattering your wheel rims, since SUVs rarely go off road. There are =20
no hills around here, nor snow or other weather conditions that could =20=

justify a four-wheel-drive. It=E2=80=99s merely cool to join the urban =20=

safari. [5]


The dividing line between nature and culture is difficult to draw. =20
When a bird builds a nest, we call it nature, but when a human puts =20
up an apartment building, suddenly it=E2=80=99s culture. Some try to =20
sidestep the problem by claiming that everything is nature, while =20
others claim that nature is only a cultural construction. It=E2=80=99s =20=

tempting just to lump the two together and give up thinking about it.

The word =E2=80=98nature=E2=80=99 is derived from the Latin word natura. =
This was =20
a translation of the Greek physis. Natura is related to Latin terms =20
meaning =E2=80=98born=E2=80=99 (and the Greek physis to Greek words for =20=

=E2=80=98growth=E2=80=99). By the time of the ancient Greeks, the =
distinction =20
between nature and culture was already considered important. Various =20
things have changed since then; nature in the sense of physical =20
matter unaltered by humans hardly exists anymore. We live in a world =20
of petrochemical cosmetics, microprocessors and synthetic clothing =20
(all things whose conditions of existence I know nothing of). New =20
shower-gel scents are put on the market faster than I can use the =20
stuff up. Shopping centers, websites and airports dominate our =20
environment. There=E2=80=99s precious little nature left that has =
remained =20
untouched by humans: perhaps a bit here and there on the ocean floor, =20=

the South Pole, or the moon. Old concepts like nature and culture, =20
human and animal, and body and mind seem inadequate for understanding =20=

ourselves and the technological society we live in [7]. Cloned =20
babies, rainbow tulips, transgenic mice afflicted with chronic cancer =20=

to serve medical science: are they natural or cultural? In an =20
evolutionary sense, every distinction between culture and nature has =20
something arbitrary about it; both have been part of the same =20
evolutionary machine since Darwin=E2=80=99s day. When we speak about =
nature, =20
we are always in fact talking about our relationship with nature, =20
never about nature itself. Nature is always =E2=80=99so-called =20
nature=E2=80=99 [8]. The terms =E2=80=98natural=E2=80=99 and =
=E2=80=98cultural=E2=80=99 are usually =20
deployed to justify one position or another. In the thirteenth =20
century, Thomas Aquinas (the Christian father) believed art imitated =20
nature, because human intellect was based on all things natural. =20
Oscar Wilde (the homosexual), on the other hand, claimed that nature =20
imitated art [9]. =46rom this thought, it is only a small step to the =20=

idea that nature exists only between our ears and is in fact a =20
cultural construction. Jacques Lacan (the postmodernist) claims that =20
we cannot see nature [10]. A moderate constructivism is currently =20
widely accepted among philosophers and scientists. Our image of =20
nature has changed greatly over the centuries. It is likely that in =20
the future we will adapt it further. This does not release us from =20
our need to keep looking for nature. The manner in which we =20
distinguish between nature and culture remains relevant, because it =20
says something about the human perspective: what is our place in nature?

An alternative approach is to distinguish between natural and =20
artificial processes. Some processes can take place as a result of =20
human action; others cannot. For example, a room can be lit through =20
the flick of a switch or a sunrise. Sunrise is a natural process; =20
flipping a light switch is an artificial one. In this view, cultural =20
processes are the clear consequences of purposeful human action, and =20
culture is whatever human beings invent and control. Nature is =20
everything else. But much of the =E2=80=99so-called nature=E2=80=99 in =
our lives =20
has taken on an artificial authenticity. Genetically manipulated =20
tomatoes are redder, rounder, larger, and maybe even healthier than =20
the ones from our gardens. There are hypoallergenic cats, and nature =20
reserves laid out with beautiful variety. You can buy specially =20
engineered living beings in the supermarket. Human design has made =20
nature more natural than natural: it is now hypernatural.[11] It is a =20=

simulation of a nature that never existed. It=E2=80=99s better than the =
real =20
thing; hypernatural nature is always just a little bit prettier, =20
slicker and safer than the old kind. Let=E2=80=99s be honest: it=E2=80=99s=
actually culture. The more we learn to control trees, animals, atoms =20
and the climate, the more they lose their natural character and enter =20=

into the realms of culture.


Thus far I have said nothing new. Everyone knows that old nature is =20
being more and more radically cultivated. However, the question is: =20
is the opposite also possible? I think it is. In contrast to =20
optimistic progress thinkers who believe human beings=E2=80=99 control =
of =20
nature will steadily increase until we are ultimately able to live =20
without it, I argue that the idea that we can completely dominate =20
nature is an illusion. Nature is changing along with us [12].
It is said Microsoft founder Bill Gates lives in a house without =20
light switches. His house of the future is packed with sensors and =20
software that regulate the lighting. Nature or culture? The average =20
Dutch person worries more about mortgage interest deductions than =20
about hurricanes or floods. Do you control the spyware and viruses on =20=

your computer? In their struggle against nature, human beings have =20
become increasingly independent of physical conditions, it is true, =20
but at the same time they are becoming more dependent on =20
technological devices, other people, and themselves. Think of the =20
dependence that comes with driving a car. We need motorways, for =20
which we pay road tax. A supply of petrol must be arranged. Once =20
you=E2=80=99re on the road, you have to concentrate so you won=E2=80=99t =
crash =20
into the guardrail. You must take account of other road users. You =20
need a driving license. All this is necessary in order to get your =20
body from point A to point B more quickly. Along with physical de-=20
conditioning comes social and psychological conditioning.

I believe the way we draw the boundary between nature and culture =20
will change. The domain of origin, of =E2=80=98birth=E2=80=99, =
previously belonged =20
to nature, while culture encompassed the domain of the =E2=80=98made=E2=80=
=99. =20
Thanks to developments in science and technology, this distinction is =20=

blurring [13]. Origin is playing a smaller and smaller role in human =20
experience, because everything is a copy of a copy. Insofar as we =20
still wish to make a distinction between nature and culture, we will =20
draw the line between =E2=80=98controllable=E2=80=99 and =
=E2=80=98autonomous=E2=80=99. Culture =20
is that which we control. Nature is all those things that have an =20
autonomous quality and fall outside the scope of human power. In this =20=

new classification, greenhouse tomatoes belong to the cultural =20
category, whereas computer viruses and the traffic-jams on our roads =20
can be considered as natural phenomena. Why should we call them =20
nature? Isn=E2=80=99t that confusing? We allot them to nature because =
they =20
function as nature, even though they=E2=80=99re not green.

Human actions are not nature, but it can cause it; real nature in all =20=

its functioning, dangers and possibilities. In spite of all our =20
attempts and experiments, it is still hardly practicable to mold =20
life. Every time nature seems to have been conquered, it rears its =20
head again on some other battlefield. Perhaps we should not see =20
nature as a static given, but as a dynamic process. It is not only =20
humans that are developing; nature, too, is changing in the process. =20
Thus, I am proposing a new approach to distinguish nature and =20
culture. At first=E2=80=93 as is usual with paradigm shifts =E2=80=93 it =
takes =20
some getting used to, but after a while things become clear again. =20
Real nature is not green.


[1] www.nieuwenatuur.nl, Stichting Duinbehoud Leiden=E2=80=99s website.

[2] Metz, Tracy (1998). New Nature: Reportages over veranderend =20
landscape. Amsterdam: Ambo, 1998, ISBN 90-263-1515-5.

[3] Wark, McKenzie (2005). =E2=80=9CN is for Nature=E2=80=9D, in Van =
Mensvoort, =20
Gerritzen, Schwarz (Eds.) (2005), Next Nature, BIS Publishers, ISBN =20
90-636-9093-2, pp. 128-134.

[4] Metz, Tracy (2002) Pret! Leisure en landschap. Rotterdam: NAi, =20
2002, ISBN 90-5662-244-7.

[5] Catlett Wilkerson, Richard (2006). Postmodern Dreaming: =20
Inhabiting the Improverse (www.dreamgate.com/).

[6] Bacon, Francis (1620). =E2=80=9CNovum organum=E2=80=9D, translated =
by James =20
Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis and Douglas Denon Heath, in The Works =20
(Vol. VIII), published in Boston by Taggard and Thompson in 1863 =20

[7] Haraway, Donna (1994). =E2=80=9CEen Cyborg Manifest=E2=80=9D, =
translated by =20
Karin Spaink (A Manifesto for Cyborgs, 1991), Amsterdam: De Balie, 1994.


On May 17 in Los Angeles, Dutch and Californian artists, scientists, =20
film makers and designers will present their statements about Next =20

Next Nature 2008

Saturday MAY 17 | 8:00 pm =E2=80=93 10:00 pm
MILLION DOLLAR THEATER, 307 South Broadway, CA 90013 Los Angeles
Ticket $ 15


Presenters & Contributors (More to follow)

Manuel Castells - Globalism & Network Theorist, USC (Spain/US)
Kevin Kelly - Senior Maverick at Wired magazine (US)
Quirine Rack=C3=A9 / Helena Muskens - Hyperreal Film Directors / Artists =
Erik Davis - Author of Technognosis & Visionary State (US)
Floris Kaayk - Science Fiction Film Director / Artist (NL)
Peter Lunenfeld - Media Philosopher, author USER:InfoTechnoDemo (US)
Rene Daalder / Folkert Gorter - Space Collective (US/NL)
Luna Maurer / Roel Wouters - Virtual Physical Design Blenders (GM / NL)
Michiko Nitta - Green Guerillia Rebel - Royal College of Art, London
Julian Bleecker - Design Technologist, Near Future Laboratories (US)
Arnoud van den Heuvel - Gatherer of Stuff & Designer of Plastic Cars =20
Sunny Bergman - Challenger of the Beauty Industry, Film Director, (NL)
Tinkebell - Pink Provocateur & Animal rights Artist (NL)
Casey Alt - Designer - Slightly Sociopathic Software CEO, UCLA (US)
Selby Gildemacher - PIEK Artist (NL)
Karl Grandin - Hunter of corporate animals, Designer (SE)
Judith de Leeuw - Sportshoe Archeologist- Sandberg Institute (NL)
David Kremers - Biological-Artist-in-Residence, CalTech (US)
Rob Schr=C3=B6der - World Critic, Film Director (NL)
Hendrik-Jan Grievink - Brandalizer, Designer, Editor (NL)
Christian Bramsiepe - Intelligent Designer, Film Director (Germany)
Susana Soares - Genetic Trace Designer- Syracuse University New York =20
Joris van Gelder - Magical Interaction Technology - TU Eindhoven (NL)
X=C3=A1rene Eskandar - Tentative Architecture - UCLA (US)=

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@kein.org