Why the Sea Needs Us

In the first of a series of blogs from the 2017 joint Dalhousie-Memorial SSHORE workshop, Sean McGrath questions the conventional division between nature and technology and urges us to think of the “technosphere” as being, like the oceans, fluid and dynamic rather than linear and hierarchical. Part of our environment, they both must be included in our thinking about ethics and conduct in the Anthropocene.

Sean J. McGrath (Philosophy, Memorial University)

The first to speak of the death of nature was Carolyn Merchant in her book of the same title, a seminal text in eco-feminism that describes patriarchy, technological domination, and mechanistic science as related features of an axial sixteenth-century shift in thinking about the human being’s place in the world. Merchant locates the latest appearance of the notion of kosmos in the Renaissance, when followers of Paracelsus, the peregrinating medical doctor and alchemist of Switzerland, inundated the bourgeoning book industry with lavishly illustrated texts elaborating the possibilities of a science that works within kosmos, and promising the empowerment of the human community. Merchant contrasts androcentric Enlightenment atomization, objectification, and dissection with this Renaissance version of holism, which, she argues, preserved the premodern idea of cosmos and—most importantly for eco-feminism—promoted a fundamentally gendered approach to reality. She contends that nature conceived as an organic whole, “the female earth,” simultaneously knitted individuals together in concentric circles of belonging: family, community, state, creation. The good of the individual was, in the order of things, subordinated to the common good. The “dominion” model of techno-science, in contrast, sundered humanity into atomistically self-interested individuals and reduced the earth to an exploitable resource.

I have an objection to make to Merchant’s thesis, an objection which is central to the argument I wish to formulate concerning the new form of modernity, which I believe is our best chance. It concerns the gendering of the technology/nature distinction. Without for a moment underplaying the crucial contribution of eco-feminism to the literature of environmentalism, we need to ask ourselves if the correlation of violence against women and the early modern utilitarian attitude to nature still adequately characterizes the ecological situation in the Anthropocene. Male technology raping a female earth is too simple a dichotomy to describe, for example, the technosphere, which no one seems to control, which is self-reproducing, and which could hardly be described as male and patriarchal. The technosphere is rhyzomatic rather than arborescent, uterine rather than phallic, and relational rather than hierarchical. The digitally sutured second-nature, in which most of us now live, move, and have our being (humans and the domestic plants and animals that depend upon them), is no longer simply the product of linear thinking, phallocentric domination of the wild, etc.; it has itself become a new form of wilderness, proliferating without plan, wherever there is a cellphone to connect to the web, i.e., everywhere. In fact, the struggle of traditional models of male-dominated economic power, to maintain control of the technosphere—from corporations suing individuals for file sharing, to fantastic geo-engineering projects to fight climate change—indicates that the dichotomy between phallocentric technology and feminine nature is simply no longer tenable.

Technology itself has now assumed features associated with the ‘female earth’: the technological is not a tool but a ‘space’ for the growth and development of organic life, a receptacle; it is deeply relational, creating a proliferation of communities, human and non-human, and engendering new forms of social and political life. It is for the most part parasitical on the biosphere, but it might evolve into a commensal mode of symbiosis. In a commensal relationship between two organisms, the relation of dependency is not at the expense of the host. In any case, the technosphere is self-organizing, if not alive in the strict sense, organic in its manner of developing. The technosphere has taken on the grounding and life-enabling function that was previously held to be a signature quality of “earth”: many life forms, not only human, now depend on the technosphere and cannot exist apart from it. Without the technosphere millions of domesticated animals, from the animals we raise to consume to the pets we choose to live with, would perish. We are indeed dealing with something new in our times, something unprecedented in previous eras: the creation of a new material support system for life, human and non-human. It cannot be dismantled without causing a global catastrophe. It is not in the command of any one central authority. For every population privileged by it, another segment of the population that would never otherwise have had a chance (certain species of canine, for example) is enabled. For every non-human species sacrificed by it (reptiles for example), other non-human species benefit. The technosphere is too all-inclusive, too de-centralized and too unpredictable to be simply vilified as a patriarchal-domination of nature. But neither is it to be regarded as simply benign (anymore than the earth could be regard as benign). It is the home of life in the Anthropocene, the new form that nature has taken in our age, and if we have no choice but to live in it, we must learn to live justly in it.

Which brings me to the title of this blog: why the sea needs us. Because it too is now part of the technosphere, because what we do to the climate will affect all life in it, because to persist in thinking that it exist for itself in the Anthropocene will only perpetuate neglect of our responsibilities towards it.

References and further reading:

Merchant, Carolyn, 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. New York: HarperCollins.

Morton, Timothy. 2010. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. The Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Trans. Catherine Porter. Harvard University Press.

—. 2013. Facing Gaia. Six lecture on the Political Theology of Nature. The Gifford Lectures, given in Edinburgh, 18-28 February 2013. http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/downloads/GIFFORD-ASSEMBLED.pdf

Williams, Mark, Jan Zalasiewicz, P.K. Haff, Christian Schwägerl, Anthony D. Barnosky, and Erle C. Eills. 2015. “The Anthropocene Biosphere.” The Anthropocene Review 2 (3): 196-219.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2008. Nature and Its Discontents.ˮ SubStance. Issue 117 (vol. 37, no. 3): 37-72.

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