Cultural Studies is not very good at thinking about the place of nature in today’s technologically mediated life as it’s mainly concerned with “constructivism” or the production of cultural objects, identities and affects. Nature always comes to foil such things, exceeding them, breaking them down, returning them to the earth. The problem is how to “think” nature in this context. And how does this thinking of nature help us to relate to the sciences, with their particular way of thinking of nature as objectified, managed environment.
A number of recent cases in point stand out. One is “climate change” as it problematises a hard and fast distinction between nature and culture. It also upsets an orderly progression and change of the seasons. The seasons are a cultural construction of nature, and the four European seasons imposed in the case of Australia on Aboriginal seasons (often six) are a colonisation of time. Similarly politicians and journalists referring to recent disasters as natural and as exhibiting the wrath of “Mother Nature” is problematic both for their Janus-faced construction of nature and for not acknowledging and appreciating “her” bounty and generosity.
This special issue of Transformations brings together contributions to the discussion of the cultural construction of nature around the issues of climate change, seasonality, disaster, and other associated topics related to “the seasons,” as well as broader theoretical and philosophical issues concerned with the rethinking of nature as a category of Western thought. The contributions assembled herein fall into the two broad categories of “the seasons” and “new approaches to nature” and are organized into two parts in this issue. The distinction between them, however, is arbitrary and largely dictated by their titles as the articles grouped in the first part under the rubric of “the seasons” also engage with, and generate, new approaches to nature. Similarly and conversely, the articles assembled in the second part entitled “new approaches to nature” also engage with the seasons, and with questions of time, temporality and history.
John Ryan’s article kicks off the first part of the issue “Rethinking the Seasons” by tackling upfront the seasons, their role in the natural world, and how the embodied experiences of time and space in places and moments are expressed in nature writing. As an American currently living in Australia, he not only has to deal with the hemispherical inversion of the conventional four northern seasons in the south, but also to grapple with the cultural difference of the six Aboriginal seasons in south-western Australia related to its unique flora. Out of this confluence he formulates a new approach to nature and the seasons that he calls “embodied temporality.”
Katherine Wright in the second article looks at a particular local instance of the imposition of the four European seasons undertaken by planting trees in the town of Armidale in New South Wales that produces “chromatic autumn.” She considers this programme to be a colonisation of time and calls for its decolonisation through ecological remembrance. This involves what she calls “the collective cultural remembering of forgotten human and nonhuman agents involved in the collaborative and ongoing constructions of place.” As with Ryan’s article, there is a similar engagement with time, the seasons and the formulation of a new approach to nature.
Jo Law in the third article of the first section draws on the tradition of the almanac and relates the process of constructing her own almanac as a way of creatively engaging with the changing of the seasons, their variable colours and life-forms. She argues that “the almanac as a medium has the potential to make perceptible an inclusive and encompassing ecology that constitutes our multifaceted experience of the seasons.” She does so in an exemplary cross-cultural exchange between Australian and Japanese cultural constructions of seasonality.
The first two articles consider Australia within the context of the European cultural construction of seasonality. The third article considers the seasons in Australia and Japan. Joseph Ballan in the fourth article considers the seasons wholly and solely in the northern polar region in which they are bifurcated starkly between summer and winter due to the widely divergent angles of sunlight at different times during the year. Within the context of Inuit culture, as he puts it, “changes in the natural world are bound together with alterations in social and affective life.” He proposes “a way of thinking about how physical changes in the environment take on meaning and affective tonalities for communities and individuals.”
In the fifth and final article in the first section, Rod Giblett, like Wright, critiques the colonisation of time undertaken by the European cultural construction of the four seasons in Australia. Like Wright, he also calls for the decolonisation of time and the seasons. He does so through a deconstructive reading of some of the writing about the seasons in the literary canon and through an appreciation for its dissenting minority. He places this project within the contemporary moment of “climate change” and “global warming” and proposes “seasonal dislocation” or “seasonal disruption” as better, more precise and poetic ways to describe these phenomena.
This brings us to the second section of the issue, “New Approaches to Nature.” All of the articles in this section are concerned in one way or another with critiquing anthropocentric approaches to nature, and with providing alternatives. Warwick Mules in the first article considers nature in the philosophical writings of Martin Heidegger. In Mules’s reading of Heidegger, poetic dwelling with nature and the technological are intertwined in the artistic rather than remaining separate categories as in other readings. He offers a critique of romantic ideas of a “return to nature” and proposes instead a thinking with the artwork in its “turning” out of technology as an openness to nature “as such.” For Mules “to think with nature as a poietic event of openness requires a reawakened trust in Being and a recovery of the ontological bearing of art.”
Ben Dibley in the second article of the second section considers the place of nature in the age of the “anthropocene” – the era of the human-made world since industrialisation – and the role of humans in that world as both “a biological species with a geological agency now directing planetary life” as he puts it, and as a species-being with “the capacity to consciously direct its own species’ life activity.” He considers how “the parametric boundaries for species-life open up new domains for the creation of surplus as the earth system itself become financialised and augmented.” Dibley concludes that “the Anthropocene is here to stay. There is no return to a benevolent Holocene”. Instead he argues that the activity of industrialising the planet by the human species-being “demands the total metamorphosis of its means of production if it is to forestall the demise of its species-life and, indeed, that of thousands of other species.”
Anne Schillmoller and Aidan Ricketts in the third article of the second section, consider the possibility of the rights of nature in legal discourse as “earth jurisprudence.” They write: “earth jurisprudence aims to develop ‘non-anthropocentric’ earth justice systems capable of recognising and representing the ‘rights of nature.’” However, the authors argue that human justice systems are unavoidable artifacts of human exceptionalism and that to conceive of a non anthropocentric legal system is perhaps both unachievable and, practically speaking, of limited value. Instead they propose a jurisprudence of “strategic anthropomorphism” to enable “empirically based ecocentric interventions in a radical redesign of the anthropogenic project of law.”
Monica Westin in the fourth article develops an approach to environmental art based on a modification of the relational aesthetics of Nicholas Bourraud, and informed by concepts of the “civil contract” and the “civil gaze” proposed by visual culture theorist Ariella Azoulay. Employing these concepts, Westin develops an approach to environmental art that “creates a relationality between spectator, nature, and art without overt activist statements.”
Rod Giblett and Warwick Mules
I RETHINKING THE SEASONS
The Six Seasons: Shifting Australian Nature Writing Towards Ecological Time and Embodied Temporality
The seasons figure prominently into writings about nature. The progression of spring, summer, winter and autumn has been used as a narrative template for expressing the cyclicality of places. In Australia, descriptions about the reversal or absence of the seasons appear in the writings of colonial commentators. However, the uptake of the four seasons by contemporary Australian nature writers warrants critical attention, rather than ongoing reiteration. An aspect of Australian colonisation has been the imposition of the Gregorian configuration and subsequent relegation of traditional calendars to the margins of time-keeping. The four-season template impresses a structure upon Australian ecologies, whereas Aboriginal land-based calendars reflect regional nuances and hence Aveni’s concept of “ecological time.” Engagement with eco-time counterpoises the colonial elision of—and failure to recognise—antipodean seasons. Rather than uncritically adopting the template of the north, Australian writers might consider extant traditions of seasonality, time and calendars connected culturally and corporeally to places. Such a shift from structural towards ecological time involves what I call “embodied temporality.”
Armidale’s Imported Autumn
In the mid-twentieth century an accountant named Alwyn Jones brought seasons to the streets of the Australian New England tableland town, Armidale. Jones, a local resident and active civic member, initiated the planting of over nine thousand trees throughout Armidale over a five decade period. Armidale is now known as the ‘City of Four Seasons’ due to the brilliant colour of its imported deciduous foliage.
In this paper I argue that the invention of a chromatic autumn in an Australian town is a colonisation of time. The imposition of an abstractly measured four seasons refuses dialogical engagement with Indigenous modes of change and obscures nonhuman agency. Adopting environmental philosopher Val Plumwood’s vision of an ‘adaptive garden’, and applying Mikhail Bakhtin’s critique of cyclicity, I advocate a counter-hegemonic ethic of ‘ecological remembrance’ to decolonise Armidale’s streets and parks. Ecological remembrance involves the collective cultural remembering of forgotten human and nonhuman agents involved in the collaborative and ongoing constructions of place.
The almanac projects: seasons experienced through the material world
This paper explores the almanac as a medium for enacting a vital materialist practice. It begins by asking: what elements do we incorporate into the ways we think about weather, climates and seasons? What other possibilities exist if we consider weather and seasons that include non-human perspectives? What are the implications of these ways of thinking? I draw upon Jane Bennett’s “vital materialism” in considering the experience of seasons as human and non-human assemblages of activity. I present my own almanac projects as an active and creative engagement with the living and non-living worlds participating in seasonal changes. The paper argues that the almanac as a medium has the potential to make perceptible an inclusive and encompassing ecology that constitutes our multifaceted experience of the seasons.
Seasonal Affective Order: Rhythmanalysis and Mesology of Circumpolar Religion
It has long been acknowledged that in Inuit society, there exists an alternation or rhythm between an intense collective religious life in the winter and a comparatively profane summer marked by smaller scale social encounters. In this way, changes in the natural world are bound together with alterations in social and affective life. This relationship between natural conditions and social-cultural distributions is discussed in Marcel Mauss and Henri Beuchat’s classic study of seasonal variations among the Inuit. Using the ethnographic material available to them, Mauss and Beuchat demonstrate a strong connection, but not a causal one, between the extreme natural seasonal changes and the patterns of social and religious circumpolar life. Focusing in particular on how this mediation between the space-time of a community and its material substratum manifests itself in religious life, this paper offers some slight revisions to Mauss and Beuchat’s idea of social morphology, by reconsidering it in light of more recent ethnographic and historical literature, on the one hand, and the theoretical work of Henri Lefebvre and Augustin Berque, on the other. Taken together, Lefebvre and Berque model a way of thinking about how physical changes in the environment take on meaning and affective tonalities for communities and individuals.
The Seasons: Homage to Henry David Thoreau
All cultures have seasons, an understanding of the cycles of the year, especially the growing, gathering and hunting periods, and the predominantly hot or cold, wet or dry times of the year that are related to those periods. Yet the number and nature of the seasons and their physiological and psychological affects varies widely across cultures. The four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter are a European cultural construction of nature. These four seasons were imposed on the antipodean, upside-down world of Australia, and on its climates considered vaguely and inappropriately ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Temperate’ modelled on European exemplars, and on indigenous seasons – six in the case of some Australian aboriginal groups, such as the Noongars of south-western Australia. In this paper I chart briefly the colonisation of the seasons in Australia and then call for and begin their decolonisation. I do so through a deconstructive reading of some of the writing about the seasons in the European literary canon, especially James Thomson, and through an appreciation of its dissenter in Henry David Thoreau. The seasons, however, are not merely a matter of idle historical curiosity nor an interesting antiquarian hobby. They play a much more vital role in contemporary cultural and environmental politics in the age of human-made climate change in which the seasons, European and indigenous, are being disrupted. Rather than ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ I propose ‘seasonal dislocation’ or ‘seasonal disruption’ as better, more precise and poetic ways to describe these phenomena.
II NEW APPROACHES TO NATURE
Heidegger, nature philosophy and art as poietic event
This paper undertakes a reading of Heidegger’s later writing in terms of nature philosophy. Nature philosophy is a thinking with nature “otherwise” in open possibility. Heidegger’s writings on art and technology indicate a way of thinking with technology otherwise, in the openness of the event of Being (Ereignis). In its singularly resistive stance within technology, art partakes of the “other beginning,” or the turning of technology out of itself and towards the event of Being. Art keeps open the possibility that human being might be otherwise than as the being destined for technological enframing. The paper counters another way of reading Heidegger’s writings on art and technology which argues for a leap out of technology into poetic dwelling with nature, arguing that this Romantic view overlooks crucial aspects of Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit: the non-willing “letting be” that enables humans to be with the things of nature in their otherwise possibilities – other than as ordered by technological enframing. Gelassenheit does not mean simply returning to the things of nature in poetic dwelling, but a twisting free from technology in poietic openness. To think with nature as a poietic event of openness requires a reawakened trust in Being and a recovery of the ontological bearing of art.
“Nature is Us:” the Anthropocene and species-being
This paper examines the notion of the Anthropocene alongside that of species-being to reflect on the folding of the human into the geological, which has emerged as the unintended consequence of capital’s global expansion. In particular, it explores the tensions and the implications of the two contrasting formulations of the human that respectively inform these two notions: that is, as a particular biological species, with a geological agency now directing planetary life; and as a species-being, with the capacity to consciously direct its own species’ life activity. The context for this discussion is an exchange between Dipesh Chakrabarty and Slavoj Žižek, where Žižek contests the terms in which Chakrabarty constitutes a new universal subject of the epoch of the Anthropocene. Developing a third position, the paper turns to Nick Dyer-Witherford’s formulations on the “factory planet” to consider how the parametric boundaries for species-life open up new domains for the creation of surplus as the earth system itself become financialised and augmented.
Anne Schillmoller and Aidan Ricketts
Recognising Rights for Nature: A Negotiation of Principle and Pragmatism
This paper investigates the tensions inherent in the notion of a non-anthropocentric earth justice system predicated on the recognition or consideration of rights for nature. It considerswhether metaethical frameworks based on the notion of ecocentrism are competent toinform and engenderthe development of legal and political interventions which can effectively respond to ecological crises. In particular, it considers the extent to which tensions between pragmatism and principle may hinder the development of an effective earth jurisprudence.
Recuperating Relational Aesthetics: Environmental Art and Civil Relationality
The relationship between nature and contemporary visual art has been a source of critical interest since conceptualist earthworks projects by Smithson and others in the sixties, and the formalist terms of conversation that emerged then have dominated the way we talk about environmental art. On the other extreme, activist art makes explicit political and pedagogical appeals for ecological causes. However, a third case of environmental artists that make public encounter a powerful aspect and catalyst of real changes in understanding our relationship to nature – exemplified here by Andy Goldsworthy and David Nash – work in a mode that creates an aesthetics and rhetoric of relation between artist, work, and public. There has yet to be a unified and sustained vocabulary with which to talk about this work, but two contemporary theorists of aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud and Ariella Azoulay, each provide fruitful beginnings for a new vocabulary of this body of contemporary environmental art. Bourriaud’s controversial term “relational aesthetics” – a call to art that works as a space of reconfiguring social relations — and what Ariella Azoulay calls a “civil contract” way of seeing both provide an entry into describing this work. Combining these ideas, the resulting concept of “civil relationality” can then be applied to this “third case” of environmental art, used to recuperate Bourriaud’s much-criticized ideas, and expanded to larger currents in contemporary art.