Le Panoptique

Perspectives sur les enjeux contemporains | More Perspective on Current International Issues

Nature Matters

Publié le 1 mars, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

Télécharger l'article au format PDF

At a recent conference in Toronto entitled Nature Matters: Materiality and the More-Than-Human in Cultural Studies of the Environment (Oct. 25-28, 2007), presenters spoke on a wide range of topics, all of which touched in some way on the difficulties – linguistic, conceptual, ethical and political – of researching, writing and talking about nature. We present here a sampling of some of the issues raised at this conference, as a means of inspiring critical reflection on the ways in which nature and the non-human figure in larger environmental debates as well as our everyday lives.

sergio Godoy, Art-wall, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

As early as 1994, the environmental crisis inspired two cultural studies scholars, Jennifer Darryl Slack and Jody Berland, to search for a way to articulate the “materiality of nature” – things like plants, animals, soil and water 1. They noted that the physical occupation of land and environmental degradation help to sustain political relations of power and oppression. In addition, Slack and Berland asked: how do we speak of beings who don’t speak themselves, and whose existence somehow exceeds speech? If the materiality of the world both registers and responds to our interventions, how can we listen to and translate its communications? Can the earth, nature and non-speaking beings ‘assert’ themselves although they may have no audible ‘voice’2?

More than a decade later, scholars in cultural studies and related disciplines are still struggling with how to account for nature, or the more-than-human, in their research and writing. This is important precisely because nature is often taken to be obvious and indisputable – “it’s only natural!” Here, we attempt to trouble this assumption, and present a series of questions raised by cultural studies of the environment, and reflected in discussions at Nature Matters. We see these questions – covering everything from academic terminology to environmental justice and artistic practices – as entry points for discussion about the role of our understandings of nature in relation to environmental politics. Not to take away a sense of urgency, we intend only to introduce a measure of humility into collective deliberations about how to be ethical as well as effective in our actions.

Why Refer to Nature as ‘More-Than-Human’?

At the heart of a cultural studies conference about nature is the recognition that there are ethical, epistemological and political problems inherent in a taken-for-granted notion of nature. Some of these were explicitly treated by presenters at Nature Matters. For example, references to nature in terms of what is really ‘real’ can close down discussion. Thus, one presenter argued that the imperative of convincing people that climate change is ‘real’ has led to a rather narrow public understanding of the problem and our options with regard to collective action3. Conversely, while celebrations of nature as ‘wild’ or ‘untouched’ carry a range of positive connotations, they are often based on a history of domination towards other beings – human and non-human. A paper on the Temagami forest reserve in Ontario illustrated how long-occupied aboriginal lands were conveniently constructed by politicians, loggers and tourist operators in the 18th century as ‘pristine’ or ‘virgin’ nature. The celebration of nature in this way plays a part in obscuring an oppressive and even violent history4.

Based on a history of problematic uses of the word, researchers often choose other terms to indicate their interest in nature – such as the ‘more-than-human’. These terms are also intended to avoid implying that nature is somehow opposite to the ‘human’ or ‘culture’ – a dichotomy that makes it possible to speak of nature as something separate from ourselves, and turns a whole range of beings into objects (as opposed to subjects, a status reserved for human beings). This instrumental relation to nature, in which natural objects can be observed, recorded and experimented upon, has allowed for a great deal of scientific research. However, not only is the objectification of non-human beings ethically problematic, it also gives an impression of distance and disinterest which is inaccurate since we are always ourselves a part of the world being investigated.

Many of the presenters at Nature Matters referred to the work of Donna Haraway, a feminist scholar of science studies who has argued that nature can be thought of as a coyote, or trickster, more than a stable and passive object of research5. She encourages us to engage in a conversation with nature – a conversation that acknowledges that non-human beings are active subjects, not objects. Thus, one presenter argued that while images of grizzly bears are often used in ski resort advertisements as symbols of wild nature, they should instead be understood as actors within a network that includes skiers, resort operators and environmental activists, among others6.

Across a range of talks at Nature Matters, the ethical and political urgency of improving our ability to account for, and include non-human subjects was strongly established. That is, if non-human beings are understood to be autonomous subjects rather than objects, it will then be easier to argue for reorientations in science, as well as the ethics and politics of everyday life. Once ‘nature’ is shown to be social, historically complex and tricky, we can no longer take it for granted.

How Do We Understand Contact Between Humans and Landscape?

One of the more obvious ways in which we encounter and engage with the more-than-human, is through our physical contact with the world – both on an everyday basis and on a grander scale. In a plenary talk by Julie Cruikshank, stories of “first contact” between a landscape of glaciers, European explorers, and First Nations peoples off the Gulf of Alaska, offered a world view wherein nature and culture are fully entangled. The Athapaskan and Tlingit people understand nature and culture to be inseparable: glaciers and landscape actively respond to human actions7. If we connect this with Haraway’s philosophy (above), this places human concepts and practices squarely in the midst of a complex and delicately balanced world. There is no safe objective distance between the researcher-explorer and the landscape. At any moment, seismic activity or a sudden loud sound can set off an awe-inspiring but potentially deadly glacial collapse. In telling stories of glaciers, the Athapaskan and Tlingit peoples and explorers, Cruikshank reminds us that humans and landscape are always already interacting.

How Does Environmental Justice Connect the Well-Being of Humans with the More-Than-Human?

Our material relations with the more-than-human become particularly apparent in the realm of environmental justice. In one of the conference’s plenary talks, Giovanna Di Chiro, an activist and pedagogue from Mount Holyoke College in the United States argued convincingly for a deeply politicized perspective on environmental issues, with a particular focus on industrial contamination and women’s health across the US12. As an environmental justice activist, Di Chiro draws our attention to how industrial pollution is often the result when the production of material goods and economic wealth is not balanced with the health and continuity of humans (or “social reproduction”) and the environment. Industrial contamination has an impact on human and environmental health – whether it occurs in a city, a suburb, or a rural setting. One example, discussed by Di Chiro, gives a sense of how the fight for environmental justice directly affects health and social reproduction.

The Mother’s Milk Project, was initiated by Akwesasne Mohawk Katsi Cook in the 1980s. This project drew attention to the high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the breast milk of Akwesasne women and the tissues of other animals due to industrial waste from a General Motors power-train plant near Massena, New York13. As PCBs are bio-accumulative, their presence in any given environment becomes particularly concentrated at the top of the food chain – in human breast milk and, therefore, in breastfed babies. The connection between environmental problems and social inequities becomes apparent when one considers that it would be very unlikely for GM to build a plant near a white and wealthy neighbourhood; but if this scenario were ever to occur, the clean-up would not be delayed for decades, as has been the case on the Akwesasne lands14.

How Does the Way We Represent Nature Affect What We See and Experience of Nature?

Artistic practice can be a productive means of interrogating and re-imagining our relation to nature. Focusing on visual representations of the environment, several presenters at Nature Matters invoked a need to both understand the significance of the representations themselves, and to establish a way of speaking that somehow enacts our experiences within nature.

For example, Adrian Ivakhiv argued that in order to fully understand the significance of visual representations of nature we must bring to the forefront the environmental-political circumstances that make those images possible, in part by taking into account the means of production8. This may involve bringing in extensive equipment, building roads and disrupting ecosystems, as well as the manufacture and processing of film stock using heavy chemicals, and the use of editing suites that must be frequently updated (creating e-waste). According to Ivakhiv, these material effects are typically invisible once the resulting images, often pristine and idyllic, are introduced into our visual environments, providing a soothing portrayal of nature. Even when the images are not idyllic and depict heavy environmental damage, the visual representations themselves are framed and aestheticized; promoting a view of nature that can further objectify our relations to it.

Work that seeks to move beyond this problem of representation cannot simply take on different subject matter, but instead remakes the images themselves9. Two examples raised in this context were Peter Mettler and Stan Brakhage (10). Their work does not represent nature so much as it creates an experience for viewers – an experience that makes us question how we frame the natural world, and how we use our sight as a tool of control. Through their use of repetition, extreme close-ups, and blurred images they make the camera frame visible and frustrate the viewer’s usual mastery over the image. This is an experience/view of nature that encourages a more meditative approach: the viewer is often unsure of what she is looking at and is forced to look again, differently, at the familiar. This aesthetic practice forces the viewer into a more thoughtful and simultaneously more bodily relationship with the images. We react to them affectively and are therefore denied the impulse to control or objectify nature as inherently other than ourselves.

This kind of aesthetic practice was also taken up verbally in a performance piece entitled “Time at Mary Lake” (11). This performance attempted to reformulate the human relationship to nature through aesthetic means. In particular, instead of representing nature, it presented nature, forcing the audience to move through the imagined Mary Lake with the performers, enacting a phenomenology of time. As was often repeated throughout, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” This critique of how we speak of nature was not only an intellectual challenge, it also forced the audience to re-imagine their relationship to nature as an undivided experience of body, mind, and emotions.

Can Change be Motivated by Something Other Than Crisis?

While the anxiety of climate change is now part of our daily lives, it is nonetheless important that we be guided by more than just a sense of urgency in our discussions about how best to respond to environmental crises. Indeed, one paper at Nature Matters examined the rhetorical construction of crisis and identified crisis as the usual precursor to change and linked its construction to the logic of capitalism15. We hope, in contrast, that a broadening of discussion to include consideration of our constructions of and assumptions about nature, might suggest more positive avenues for pursuing change. Linked to the questions raised above, we see many promising examples: the possibility of respectful coexistence between humans and the more-than-human; a better understanding of our material and visceral entanglements in the world; artistic practices that help to re-present and re-imagine our relation to the environment; and activism for an environment that will be just and healthy for the more-than-human and humans alike.


1. Cultural studies is an academic discipline which produces critical and explicitly political scholarship on culture, broadly conceived. Or, more specifically, “cultural studies is about how inequalities of power are produced, maintained and transformed through culture…it argues that culture is a site of struggle and has a role in both reproducing inequality and challenging it.” Slack, J.D. and Wise, J.M. Culture + Technology: A Primer. New York, NY: Peter Lang (2005): 2.
2. Berland, J. and Slack, J.D. “On environmental matters,” Cultural Studies 8.1 (1994): 1-4.
3. Neves-Graca, K. “Deux ex Machina: Popularized Determinism and Complexity in Systems Biology.” Talk presented at Nature Matters: Materiality and the More-Than-Human in Cultural Studies of the Environment. Canada Research Chair in Sustainability and Culture, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University. Toronto, Ontario. 25-28 October, 2007.
4. Thorpe, J. “Growing Upwards, Thinking Backwards: Temagami Pines and Canadian Nation.” Talk presented at Nature Matters, 2007. The First Nations whose traditional territories correspond quite closely to the Temagami Forest Reserve are the Temagami First Nation (TFN) and the Teme-Augama Anishnabai (TAA).
5. A trickster is a mythical figure whose ‘tricks’ cause problems for a hero or heroine, but who ultimately helps them in some way. See Haraway, D. Simians, Cyborgs and Women. New York, NY: Routledge (1991).
6. Stoddart, M. “Grizzlies and Gondolas: Skiing, Ursine Actants and Wild Animots.” Talk presented at Nature Matters, 2007.
7. Cruikshank, Julie. “Are Glaciers Good to Think With?” Talk presented at Nature Matters, 2007. See also Julie Cruikshank’s book: Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press (2005). It is principally the Athapaskan and Tlingit First Nations that live in this part of the world near Glacier Bay and the Saint Elias Icefields. Through the description of three expeditions (headed respectively by La Pérouse in the 18th C., John Muir in 19th C., and Edward Glave towards the end of the 19th C.) Cruikshank also conveyed the growing separation of “nature” from “culture” within European and colonial perspectives.
8. Adrian Ivakhiv ”Greening Visual Cultures: image ecologies in televisual society.” Nature Matters: Materiality and the More-Than-Human in Cultural Studies of the Environment. Talk presented at Nature Matters, 2007.
9. Tyler Tekatch. “Seeing Nature Anew: representations of nature in avant-garde cinema.” Talk presented at Nature Matters, 2007.
10. See Peter Mettler’s film Pictures of Light, a documentary on trying to capture the northern lights on film; and Stan Brakhage’s many experimental films, including his opus Dog Star Man, which examine the relationship between humans and the other-than-human.
11. Co-written by Peter Timmerman, Mora Campbell, Heather Lash, Robert Brown, and Joshua Russell, synthesized by Heather Lash.
12. Di Chiro, Giovanna. “‘Living Environmentalisms’: Coalition Politics, Social Reproduction, and Environmental Justice.” Talk presented at Nature Matters, 2007.
13. LaDuke, Winona. All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life. Cambridge, MA: South End Press (1999): 11-20.
14. Boswell-Penc, Maia. Breastmilk, Feminisms and the Politics of Environmental Degradation. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press (2006): 140.
15. Erickson, Bruce. “The End of Man? The End of Nature? Capitalism, Masculinity and the New Environmentalism.” Talk presented at Nature Matters, 2007.

Creative Commons License
Cet article est publié sous un contrat Creative Commons.