The Conversion of Nature and Technology (1)

Something I read recently reminded me of an old, short essay of my own, one that I wrote more than forty years ago* and had not reread in more than thirty. When I was reminded of it, I read it again, and found it still pertinent—indeed, even more pertinent to our  global situation today than it was back in the first half of the 1970s when I wrote it. It also pertains to my last post in the four-post series on “Trauma and Transfiguration,” which I finished just before taking the two-week holiday break I am ending with this current post. Accordingly, I decided to publish my old essay anew, this time online, as a series of five posts, of which this is the first. I have cleaned up some grammatical and typographical errors, but left the content unchanged. I have also left intact the pseudo-generic use of the term “man” to mean “human being,” as reflects the sexist practice still all too common back when I first wrote the piece.

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Phenomenologists such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty are right to point out that, even in so-called 'primitive' societies, man never confronts a “pure,” non-human “nature.” Rather, insofar as nature is present at all it is present either as the foundation for, or as the correlate of, intentionality. Since, however, all founded intentional structures refer back ultimately to the original founding intentional structures of the life-world, the beginning and end of the phenomenology of nature must be the “nature” revealed in the life-world itself. The final sense of any theoretical or phenomenological inquiry into nature must lie in the dimension of this primordial foundation. What, then, is nature at the level of the life-world?

As Husserl and others have again pointed out, the life-world is always to be characterized as a social, inter-subjectively human intentional field. Inter-subjectivity, society, is the very atmosphere of intentional existence in the life-world, and whatever is encountered in such existence is always refracted through that atmosphere. Even the non-human—the pre-human, the other-than-human, and the super-human—is to be encountered only mediately through, and in contrast to, the inter-subjectively human. The smoldering volcano, the changing weather, the vicissitudes of fate and fortune, and whatever else remains beyond human choice and decision remain implicated in man's own life as man. They are present as the threat of ruin, in the hope of unexpected grace, or as banally indifferent to human endeavors. Just as the non-human remains caught up in the fluid boundaries of the human, so does the human remain surrounded and permeated by the non-human..

At this level, the relationship between man and nature is similar to that between the lived-body and the environment, as described, in particular, by Merleau-Ponty. The body-as-lived is no object within the environment, but is the perpetual emergence of environmental equilibrium itself. The lived-body has no fixed limits. The line of demarcation between the lived-body and its environment is a function of the equilibrium established as and by the lived-body itself. Thus, the limits of the lived-body can shrink to less than the objective extension of the skin, or expand to include a vast portion of the field of experience.

The lived-body and the environment together constitute a form (Gestalt) in which now one, now the other, is now figure, now background, and in which the limits of either can never be finally fixed. In the same way, at the level of the life-world, man and nature, the human and the non-human constitute a common form (Gestalt). As the figure belongs to the ground, and the ground to the figure, so man belongs to nature, and nature to man.

Like the lived-body/environment form, however, the Gestalt of man and nature is always fluid, never finally fixed. It is always a tenuous equilibrium. Disequilibrium perpetually threatens to erupt; the form of man and nature is always subject to dislocation. The source of this perpetual threat is primarily nature itself. To the extent that nature remains benevolently, or at least indifferently, disposed towards human endeavors, an equilibrium in which man can carve out a place for himself in nature is granted; but nature, as the background against which human society and human effort emerge, at the same time immanently manifests the constant possibility of breaking bounds and overwhelming man himself. The volcano may erupt; drought may come; lightning may strike. Here, nature is the sea of Melville's Moby Dick: superficially pacific, profoundly alien and hostile.

At the level of the life-world, nature is the ambiguous dimension of the overwhelming, the inescapable, and the sustaining, all in one. It is sustaining: It surrounds, pervades, and supports man. It is overwhelming: It constantly threatens, and occasionally without warning engulfs, man. It is inescapable: Both as sustaining and overwhelming, nature is ineluctable.

In the life-world, nature is both that to which man belongs and that which constantly jeopardizes man's plans and even his very life. As the three-fold dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and inescapable, nature, even in its calmest moods, always maintains that tension from which, at any moment, chaos and destruction might suddenly erupt. Here, nature is the unity of that which surrounds, sustains, and yet threatens and endangers man. Nature is cosmos and chaos in one.

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To be continued.


* Originally delivered at a conference of the International Husserl Society that took place in Montreal, Canada, and subsequently published in Anna-Teressa Tymieniecka (ed.), Analecta Husserliana, Vol. V (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1976), pp. 281-290.