Ben has some thoughts up on Zizek’s “Unbehangen in der Natur.” I was talking about this for Jockey Club on Friday so I thought I’d just make a couple of comments. Like Ben, I have some serious problems with Zizek’s piece as well as his conception of nature. For Ben this seems to be the imposition of a transcendental subjectivity but for me it is the concepts of alienation and rupture.
There is a clear connection between this piece and Freud’s “Unbehagen in der Kultur” (“Civilization and its Discontents”, uneasiness in culture). It is not the case that fro Freud most of us socialize normally but some people “don’t quite make it” and so must be normalized. It is rather that culture as such, in order to appear normal, ordered, etc., involves a whole series of distortions, manipulations, and pathologies. We are then “uneasy” in culture as such. One of the goals of Zizek’s work on ecology is to show this as true for nature as well, that we are uneasy, homesick, in nature itself.
This is the alienation of subjectivity, which is essential to Lacanianism. The subject only exists as alienated, through alienation. But is it the case that the human being is fundamentally alienated from nature-as-such? Part of Zizek’s structuralist narrative that he inherits from Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Rousseau, etc., is the dichotomy of nature and culture, that there was some sort of transcendental rupture in reality when human beings developed the capacity for language and suddenly we went from being apes to human beings. In this process we began instantly to supplant nature with culture, imposing ourselves on the chaos of nature, ordering it. Is this the case? Isn’t it rather that the human being, and human culture, developed slowly out of nature? Zizek wants us to believe that either there is a radical break with culture or we are New Age obscurantists who want to naively go “back to nature.” There is surely a middle ground to this ridiculous dichotomy, one that will say that culture is thoroughly “natural,” while still being (clearly) different, in the same way that both animals and minerals are natural but different.
Where does this supposed alienation from nature come from? Zizek doesn’t tell us. He wants us to think that nature is terrifying and horrible, and certainly it can be though isn’t always, that we are fundamentally afraid of it. Now, I didn’t grow up in an industrial centre or a big city; I grew up in the woods of south eastern New Brunswick, we had deer and wolves and bears in the area, sometimes in our backyard. As a child, I was never “alienated” from my surroundings, I was at home. I’m reminded of Erazim Kohak’s Embers and the Stars, one of the few works of phenomenology that I really truly like. Kohak abandons his life in Boston to live in the woods and essentially writes a phenomenology of nature. He doesn’t feel alienated either, but at home in the wilderness. Of course, he isn’t living in a cave or anything, he builds a cabin, but still. He lives with the rhythms of nature, he feels a kinship to a family of porcupines who live down river. Nature is not terrifying.