There was a moment, in the early days of the pandemic, when reports surfaced here and there of improvements in air and water quality across the world, as production and traffic abruptly diminished. Images circulated of herds of mountain goats and wild boar exploring deserted city streets and schools of dolphins exuberant in the Bosporus. Some were hoaxes, but all spoke momentarily to the idea that the disruption that had come from some sort of imbalance in human-animal relations, and could result in a rerighting in favor of nature.
In these hopes, nature was made to play a familiar role: as a haven to guarantee human well-being. Utopian thinking is full of this fantasy. The Hyperboreans of Greek legend, for example, led a perfect existence beyond the north winds in a permanent spring, and the denizens of Thomas More’s “Utopia” “cultivate their gardens with great care so that they have both vines, fruits, herbs, and flowers in them.” Later, William Morris drew nature — made almost palpable on the walls on well-furnished parlors — into his utopian counterimagining of the factories of industrial society. Today’s utopians, dreaming of shopping malls turned into wetlands, are similar in spirit.
In this view, nature guarantees cyclicality, reproduction and predictability, unlike history, with its contingency, its sudden twists and turns. But this is an illusion. Nature, of course, is very much subject to history; what seemed more or less eternal is now undergoing extinction, unstoppable melting. Nature is not settled and permanent, but always in flux. It is not something separate from humans, reliably ready to soothe our woes and restore our spirits. It is rather entangled in the web and substance of humanity, its helter-skelter activity, its ceaseless pursuits.
Human intervention in plant and animal life, for example, is legion. Take cattle. Cows’ bodies have historically served as test subjects — laboratories of future bio-intervention and all sorts of reproductive technologies. Today cows crowd together in megafarms, overseen by digital systems, including facial- and hide-recognition systems. These new factories are air-conditioned sheds where digital machinery monitors and logs the herd’s every move, emission and production. Every mouthful of milk can be traced to its source.
And it goes beyond monitoring. In 2019 on the RusMoloko research farm near Moscow, virtual reality headsets were strapped onto cattle. The cows were led, through the digital animation that played before their eyes, to imagine they were wandering in bright summer fields, not bleak wintry ones. The innovation, which was apparently successful, is designed to ward off stress: The calmer the cow, the higher the milk yield.
A cow sporting VR goggles is comedic as much as it is tragic. There’s horror, too, in that it may foretell our own alienated futures. After all, how different is our experience? We submit to emotion trackers. We log into biofeedback machines. We sign up for tracking and tracing. We let advertisers’ eyes watch us constantly and mappers store our coordinates.
Could we, like cows, be played by the machinery, our emotions swayed under ever-sunny skies, without us even knowing that we are inside the matrix? Will the rejected, unemployed and redundant be deluded into thinking that the world is beautiful, a land of milk and honey, as they interact minimally in stripped-back care homes? We may soon graze in the new pastures of digital dictatorship, frolicking while bound.
The notion of nature as something external, benevolent and consolatory might be part of the problem. Theodor Adorno, the great German philosopher and cultural critic of the mid-20th century, observes in “Aesthetic Theory” how nature that has evaded human cultivation — Alpine moraines or moonscapes — resembles the unnatural forms of industrial waste mountains and is just as terrifying.
For Adorno, idyllic nature, pristine, pretty, has more to do with oppressive sexual morality than with what nature is or can be. Against the insistence that nature should not be ravished by technology, he argues that perhaps technology could enable nature to get what “it wants” on this sad earth. And we are included in that “it.”
Nature, in truth, is not just something external on which we work, but also within us. We too are nature. “My tears well up,” wrote the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “Earth, I am returning to you.” Adorno took our overawed sensations when confronted with the magnitude of untamed nature as a signal of an awareness of our natural essence. The sublime — whether encountered in the world or in art — provokes in us tears, shudders and overwhelming feeling. Our ego is reminded of its affinities with the natural realm. In our collapses into blubbering wrecks, eyes wide and wet, we become simultaneously most human and most natural.
For someone associated with the abstruseness of avant-garde music and critical theory, Adorno was surprisingly sentimental when it came to animals — for which he felt a powerful affinity. It is with them that he finds something worthy of the name Utopia. He imagines a properly human existence of doing nothing, like a beast, resting, cloud gazing, mindlessly and placidly chewing cud.
To dream, as so many Utopians do, of boundless production of goods, of busy activity in the ideal society reflects, Adorno claimed, an ingrained mentality of production as an end in itself. To detach from our historical form adapted solely to production, to work against work itself, to do nothing in a true society in which we embrace nature and ourselves as natural might deliver us to freedom.
Rejecting the notion of nature as something that would protect us, give us solace, reveals us to be inextricably within and of nature. From there, we might begin to save ourselves — along with everything else.
Esther Leslie is a professor of political aesthetics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author, most recently, of “Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Liquid Form.”
Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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