Unpacking “Nature”

The idea that boundaries between nature and culture have dissolved is pretty commonplace nowadays, as we contemplate the Anthropocene. But it’s been developing for some time, as this review from the 1990s indicates. I am, in hindsight, amused by the casual reference here to the “boring old futures studies of the 1960s” – my later book, Rough Guide to the Future, probably leaned closer to that than to this newer approach to entangled futures. I like to think both are still worth pursuing…

The world’s leading scientific journal still calls itself Nature. Outside of the sciences, the word is now more often seen in scare quotes. So how are we to make sense of nature in future, when some are using science and technology to reconstruct previously taken-for-granted categories, and others are using the tools of other disciplines to deconstruct them?

This is the far-from-smooth terrain explored in the essays in Futurenatural. The volume is the third in a series edited by a group from Middlesex University which is trying to develop a cultural studies “take” on futurology.

This is not the boring old futures studies of the 1960s, preoccupied with technical trajectories, demographics, resource depletion and substitution and geopolitics, recently heroically synthesised by Paul Kennedy. It is, in keeping with academic fashion, much more concerned with the cultural politics of the future, and with the ways interpretations of science and broader world views interpenetrate and mutually influence one another.

The sciences and technologies which feature are thus those which are already prominent in contemporary cultural commentary – ecology, biotechnology and genetic manipulation, chaos theory, complexity and connectionism. They resonate, variously, with concerns about the destruction of nature, about refashioning nature through biological techniques, about finding new ways to understand natural and social systems. And the advent of the Internet and talk of virtual reality both loom large, because of the near-perfect fit some see between multiple expressions of identity in information space and conceptions of the post-modern subject.

All of this makes for a diverse collection, which covers a wide range of topics and positions in 18 short chapters. The editors identify a tension between a scepticism that older notions of the natural are sustainable and renewed efforts to use ideas about nature in social criticism – especially by environmentalists, whose confusions are helpfully dissected by Kate Soper. There are two further tensions evident in these essays which are equally interesting. In the general culture just now, there are those who are eager to buy into the virtual reality scenarios, who cannot wait to abandon the body, reconfigure identities, and embrace a “posthuman” future.

On the other hand, these authors are more concerned to analyse the enthusiasm of people who want to get to the future ahead of the rest of us, and ask why they want to read the works of, say, William Gibson as technological forecasts rather than fictions. Tiziana Terranova’s report from the wilder shores of the high-tech subcultures is the best example here.

Then there is a broader set of differences within the book between those who are firmly in a postmodernist, anti-essentialist, social constructivist and deconstructionist camp and others (a minority here) who see around them a world better characterised by late modernity rather than postmodernity, and who still find space for realism underlying discourse. For this reader, the latter are the most persuasive, perhaps because they are more likely to discuss these issues explicitly than the antirealists, who appear to assume that everyone agrees with them these days. So Soper, again, and Sean Cubitt offer useful reminders that cultural work needs a material base.

A mixed bag, then, but interest and provocation in abundance. These essays are perhaps best seen as snapshots of a series of related debates which are still unfolding. They speak to an endlessly renewed impulse to read the signs about where a rapidly changing culture is going, in the hope of having some influence on its trajectories. In the end, one may not be persuaded that the goal is feasible, and some of the contributions fall into wishful thinking disguised as forecasting – notably Sadie Plant on the demise of disciplines and the end of higher education. But the attempt is certainly a perennially worthy task for intellectuals, even if its late 20th-century variants are too often only accessible to fellow academics. And Frank Dexter’s tailpiece on “An interview with Satan” is a reminder that it can be fun as well. (1997)

Review of Futurenatural: Nature, Science, Culture, edited by George Robertson, Melinda Mash, Lisa Tickner, Jon Bird, Barry Curtis and Tim Putnam (Routledge).

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