"'Nature' Doesn't Exist," Says Slavoj Zizek

zizek

One of my readers (Thanks, Boudewijn) sent me a comment with reference to the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, who has some intriguing and unusual opinions on nature and humankind. I did some web searching to learn more about him and his work. I watched a few videos also. Zizek is often quite controversial. A loud critic of capitalism and, from the little I have looked at, a critic of about everything. I focused on just a few of his pieces involving the stance we should take toward “nature.” I used quotes here to emphasize his argument that nature is nothing more than an ideology that serves to mystify the world out there.

I watched this video several times trying to grasp his points. I’ll do my best here. He argues that our view of nature is as some idyllic system promising humankind the “best possible world,” but has become threatened and disturbed by humans in the course of everyday existence. He claims nature is, in truth, little more than a source of catastrophe, using as proof the upsets that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and the formation of fossil fuels. We humans cannot accept this explanation because we are programmed to deny or disavow (his word) such unimaginable events. In any case, modern humans attempt to find meaning in catastrophic events, when there is no meaning to be found.

Here is a precis of his message I cribbed from another web site, reporting on a lecture Zizek gave in Athens..

The underlying message of this predominant ecological ideology is a deeply conservative one: any change can only be a change for the worse.  So what is wrong here?  What is wrong I think is the … principal position … that there is something like “nature,” which we humans, with our hubris, with our will to dominate, disturb … [W]e know Jacques Lacan’s motto, “The big Other doesn’t exist.”  I think we should extend this to nature.  The first premise of a truly radical ecology should be, “Nature doesn’t exist.” … So again what we need is ecology without nature, ecology that accepts this open, imbalanced, denaturalized, if you want, character of nature itself.  [I]t is … all too easy to attribute our disbelief in the catastrophe to the impregnation of our minds by scientific ideology.  [The] standard thesis of the predominant ecology … says something like this: “The ultimate cause of our ecological problems is modern technology, Cartesian subjectivity, within which we are abstract beings somehow outside nature, who can manipulate nature, dominate nature … what we should rediscover is that nature is not out there, an object of our manipulation.  Nature is our very background, we are wired to nature, embedded in nature.  You should go out, feel, breathe nature.  You should accept that your abstract scientific reification … is just an alienating effect of being embedded in the life world.”  I think that far from offering a solution, this kind of reference to our immediate living experience is the cause of the problem.

I have to guess at some of the connections he makes in his arguments because I found the videos I watched extremely hard to follow. The one whose link I noted above is set in a trash collection facility. I think he was trying to say that trash is a unavoidable consequence of human life, but that we try to imagine it goes away by some magical process.

I think he is on the wrong track completely. I agree with him that we have idealized nature, but that is not the issue today. It is not nature that we worry about; it is the world we inhabit. World is just a name we give to the complex of all the entities we recognize as elements of the system from which human life has emerged and continues to provide our life support system. Zizek might argue that we have acquired such immense technological capabilities that we can put aside concerns about the life support that the world provides. He argues our concern for “nature” is misplaced. We should become “more artificial.” I presume he means that, in our desire to survive in an uncertain world, we should use all the technology at hand to insulate our species from its hazards.

So far we have not demonstrated we can do this. The one big experiment, Biosphere, designed to show that humans can live in an entirely artificial container failed after a very short time. Whether one believes that nature is kind and beneficent or cruel and unreliable is irrelevant. The facts, as far as we know them, point to a catastrophe that Zizek says is just a routine happening in that world. This may occur in the near future or not for decades. It may not occur at all. The nature of the complex world we inhabit is that it is unpredictable. I agree with Zizek that we are ignoring the potential of catastrophe, but not for the reasons he gives.

In our modern calculus of risk and benefits, we have not yet decided collectively that the risks outweigh the benefits of life as we live it now. Interestingly, he ends the video with an argument that the individualistic, consumerist, free spending American way of life may have to go. Given his Marxist roots I would guess that some form of socialism would be his answer, but we will have to wait as the video ended on the note above. I do agree with his conclusion, however. Sustainability depends on holding off catastrophe, that is, in the language of complexity: keeping the planet safely within the current attractor where life has evolved and regenerates itself. But sustainability means more than survival. It means flourishing—a wholly human concept. Maybe our species did arise from the primordial muck by purely random, meaningless evolutionary processes, but after we created language, human life became different from all other life forms. We ask questions about our existence. We care about the world we inhabit, and act to realize our cares. We do know that our lives depend on the state of that world. Life had no human beings eons ago when the world was very different from what it is today,. It could become a planet where life as we know it would not exist any longer. The world doesn’t care about this possibility. But we do. We cannot not take care of the world, although our life styles might convey an opposing message. Zizek poses some intriguing (as I noted earlier) arguments, but after hearing them, he misses a critical point. The need to care for the world does not have anything to do with our ideology about nature. It has everything to do with a real, complex world out there. We are only a tiny, but very powerful, piece of it. We cannot exist apart from it.

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5 Comments

Ted Galanos said:

Dear Dr. Ehrenfeld,

Thank you so much for this analysis on Zizek, as he has been one of my current sources of critical thinking lately. I would like to offer my interpretation of his view on nature, and some further thoughts on a discussion.

He mentions in one of his videos that "There is no mother Nature to go back too", what Lacan (his mentor) calls the big other. I believe that is the core of his argument. He doesn't suggest that we give up on nature or that it is of no importance, and even if he does we can easily disagree on the basis you describe. In my opinion, the important message of the statement, and his thinking behind it, is that we cannot hope of dealing with this complexity by combating it with stability; what our rules, regulations, policies, and so on are doing and have been doing for so long, preserving our current way of living. I understand of course that complete chaos isn't the answer, that a flourishing civilization is our goal but we need to at least realize that our world is so complex, that changes will happen and they, most importantly, need to happen. There is nothing loving or brutal in these changes. That is the valuable message i get out of it. Curiously enough, it seems very close to the CAS paradigm where strategies and interventions aim at creating the capabilities for change and adaptation, not directing change.

In this sense i am very critical to the new paradigm of Natural Capitalism which tries to incorporate nature, and its complexity, to our economic systems; thinking that it can rationally deal with it by reducing it into independent issues and assigning values on its impacts.

Also, as a student of Industrial Ecology, i find these ideas fascinating and perhaps necessary if we are to move towards sustainable development. I say this of course in a kind of opportunistic way, as IE requires considerable change in our paradigms if it is to be widely used.

David M Carter said:

If you haven't already, you may want to visit the philosophical writings of Derrick Jenson. His position about our tendency to objectify "nature" in the abstract is somewhat consistent with Zizek's views. More importantly, Jenson's work is much more accessible.

Galen Guerrero-Murphy said:

Here is a transcript of Zizek speaking at OWS. I'm a fan.

http://www.imposemagazine.com/bytes/slavoj-zizek-at-occupy-wall-street-transcript

Galen Guerrero-Murphy said:

Whew, interesting stuff. I had never heard of Slavoj Zizek. I offer this response acknowledging that there is a lot of me here. I hope there’s some Zizek too…

So, my read: Modern ecology is like religion. Much as religion idealizes a notion of “god” as something separate from man, ecology idealizes a notion of “nature” as something separate—something other than our modern reality—that can be returned to, that can heal us, that can stabilize us. It opiates us into believing there is something “easy” to access—a quick fix. This is problematic.

Furthermore, this idealization leads us to have much pain and hate and suffering in the face of our human behaviors—pain over our impact on this idealized “nature.” But for many, the pain is too much. It becomes ignored. This is also problematic. For instance, we cannot accept that our wastes remain forever, messy-ing up this ideal thing we call nature—we are not wired to accept such things—so we ignore it.

I do not believe that Zizek is arguing for us to “be more artificial.” This is a misinterpretation. Rather, I believe his message is that we must become integrated. We are not broken. We do not need to be fixed. We have not fallen. Chaos and catastrophe and pain and waste and dirt and grime are existence—it is all worth loving. There is no duality between man and nature—there just is. Only through integration and acceptance of this “whole” can we begin to love ourselves and live in harmony with our reality. Only through love of our imperfections, love of our wastes, love of our technology, love of our feeble attempts to change, can we truly begin to heal, to find wholeness, and to function as a part of this whole. “True ecologists love all this,” Zizek states, as he points at a heap of garbage.

And through this love, a fuller awareness is nourished. We become open to things as they are. It’s not pretty, but here it is.

And, there is no quick fix such as “return to nature.” Nature is not stable, and we should not seek stability.

Duane McMahon said:

He is reading from a published work entitled 'Nature and its Discontents, which is openly available on the Internet.