Critical Naturalism

A Manifesto

PREAMBLE

This manifesto is an invitation. It invites varying practices of philosophical, artistic and scientific social critique to take seriously the enormous challenges our societies face with regard to inner and outer nature. It has three parts. The first part consists of the eleven theses of Critical Naturalism. The second part is conceptual. It identifies the historical crises and catastrophes that Critical Naturalism seeks to respond to, it dispels the prejudices against naturalism in contemporary critical thought, it sketches out the notions of nature and naturalism, and it anchors Critical Naturalism in the history of Critical Theory. The last part consists of fragments for models and projects of Critical Naturalism. They are exemplary sketches of the varying ways to practice naturalist social critique. The hope is that the list will be extended by those who want to join us.

On this website, you can find the theses, the fragments and the artworks of Critical Naturalism. The manifesto, containing the second part but lacking the artworks, has been published by the the journal Krisis. You can find it here. You can submit a fragment here.

The manifesto has been written by Federica Gregoratto, Heikki Ikäheimo, Emmanuel Renault, Arvi Särkelä and Italo Testa. The artworks have been created by Mara Kirchberg, Onerva Luoma, Marta Pohlmann-Kryszkiewicz and Marina Ruffin. The website has been created by Simon Kräuchi and Arvi Särkelä.

Marina Ruffin, "These I"

1.

Nature, whose concept and reality once seemed overcome, returns by force of its own repression as a signature of our present historical situation.

Marta Pohlmann-Kryszkiewicz, "Third Landscape", Videostill

2.

Nature spilling over, populations spilling over, hospitals spilling over, climate anxiety spilling over: The symptoms of the repression become unbearable. Yet, catastrophes do not mean social transformation. They can be perpetuated by administration. 2020 might continue.

Marta Pohlmann-Kryszkiewicz: "Third Landscape", Videostill

3.

Concepts and theories of nature are not innocent. They participate in bringing the disasters forth and contribute to perpetuating them. A rational response to the current catastrophes must include attempts to grasp both these new realities of life and the dead ways of thinking that sustain them. Such has been Critical Theory’s claim. Critical Naturalism carries it into our times.

Marina Ruffin, "These IV"

4.

The so-called naturalistic fallacy is hardly a greater peril than global warming, metabolic rift and zoonotic spillover. On the contrary, a social philosophy which abstracts from nature is a mirror image of the lethal practical illusion of independence from nature.

Onerva Luoma, "Hortus Siccus 1"

5.

Independence from nature and domination of nature are two sides of the same coin. There is no emancipation without liberation within nature.

Onerva Luoma, "Hortus Siccus 3"

6.

Most hitherto Critical Theory has only denaturalized the social in various ways, the point is also to renaturalize it. Relations of domination in society are embodied materially, biologically, technologically, habitually, and institutionally, and so is the resistance to them.

Onerva Luoma, "Hortus Siccus 4"

7.

Normativist critical theory has reconstructed the norms of social critique, naturalist critical theory pushes forward. It reconstructs social life, especially the relation of societies to their natural environments and constituents and it understands itself as part and parcel of social transformation.

Onerva Luoma, "Hortus Siccus 2"

8.

Natural (inter)subjective determinations — drives, impulses, affects — can operate as critical forces of liberation. Even if always socialized, they are not infinitely malleable and they can work against encrusted social norms and structures. Critical Naturalism cares as much for our natural determinations as for our dispositions to redirect them.

Onerva Luoma, "Hortus Siccus 5"

9.

Nature has contingent and plural histories. It is geared to mutability and variation. Critical Naturalism acknowledges nature as ordered and disordered, in between stability and precariousness. It has a transient character.

Onerva Luoma, "Hortus Siccus 6"

10.

Traditional naturalism’s illusion of the One Nature of the One Science mirrors the destructive tendency of capitalist societies to reduce nature to resource and it ignores the irreducible plurality of both science and our everyday and aesthetic experiences of nature. It also impoverishes the ethnographic and cultural variety of experiences of nature. This plurality is a resource for naturalistic social critique.

Marina Ruffin, "These XI"

11.

Critical Naturalism harbors the utopian drive of reimagining the relationship between nature and society. It calls for articulation of, and experimentation with, human social forms of life that can be sustained and freely affirmed by their individual members.

FRAGMENTS

Critical Naturalism is not a theory. Like the nature it refers to, and the forms of life it critically engages with, it appears in plural forms. This last section of the Manifesto exemplifies directions of Critical Naturalism by sketching out some of its models and intents in fragmentary form. The list of fragments is open ended, and contains an implicit invitation to grow in number and depth and extend all the way into the fragmentary experience of everyday life.

Mara Kirchberg, "WETSCAPELAND", Photo by Gisèle Gonon & Mara Kirchberg

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The task of critical theory

“What is the most central task for critical theory today?” — “Who are we to say? Philosophers always come late. They don’t write manifestos. It will be up to the readers of tomorrow to say what was our most important task today.” Bad question, right answer. Yet, the current catastrophic relationship between nature and culture has rendered the right answer impossible and the bad question necessary. As things stand today, the old answer has become ominous. It might well be that there will be no readers of philosophy tomorrow. To contribute to preventing that from happening, to help achieve natural and cultural conditions, which allow for humanity to survive and to care for its forms of life is, if not the most central, then certainly an imperative task for critical theory today.

Onerva Luoma, "Hortus Siccus 7"

Nature, culture and care

Culture means care, it derives from the Latin colere. Adorno once remarked that this colere originally meant the activity of the peasant, the agricola, that is, a certain way of relating to nature, the care for nature. The fact that we set different relations to nature, that we have different forms of life, different ways of caring for nature within and without us, means a chance for us, by mutual criticism, to come to terms with ourselves, to grow by reconciling ourselves with something different than ourselves. Culture means care of nature. Critique means care of the relationship between culture and nature. Critique must not be thought of as a judgment, but as a coming to terms with oneself and each other as natural and cultural beings. Critique promises a non-violent mode of cultural transformation, the possibility of transforming our lives with care.

It is written in the face of our current form of life that it is failing in this regard. We find ourselves in a new historical constellation of nature/culture: a contradiction between the continuation of our capitalist form of life and the survival of humanity as we know it. And we find ourselves completely unable to react collectively to this enormous challenge ahead of us. The fact that global warming has reached a point of no return means that the ecological disaster that we are facing is not merely a crisis. It is a permanent catastrophe, a mutation of our relationship with the environment, of our culture. We simply have no choice but to permanently alter our relationship with nature.

How should students and teachers of philosophy react? There are two options: we can either ignore the fact that global warming has reached the point of no return, that is, try to suppress the fact that our culture will change, try to, as it were, “engineer” ourselves into a new form of life, or we can go about this change reflectively, react to the disaster creatively, go through our mutation with care.

One such attempt at a creative reaction has been to create a completely new vocabulary for nature/culture. Critical Naturalists agree that we need a radically new beginning. However, a radically new beginning does not mean suppressing the past. Such reactions end with implausible and abstract vocabularies that cannot be continued in ordinary language and guide everyday life. They will be either powerless or violent in the face of prevailing habits and customs. Therefore, Critical Naturalists believe that suppressing the past isn’t radical at all, it is superficial. Instead, Critical Naturalism proceeds negatively, by a critique of what is given, the prevailing forms of life. Reacting with care means being sensitive to the needs and powers our form of life has developed, it involves redigesting our history from the perspective of the contemporary disasters. No culture can be created from scratch. New forms of life are assembled from old forms of life. We can only react creatively from pre-existing habits by cultivating those habits further and redirecting them from the point of view of the disaster and the objective possibilities at hand.

Marta Pohlmann-Kryszkiewicz, "Natural Forms"

Niche constructors

As a particular animal species, humans are distinguished by the fact that work is the mediator of their adaptation to their natural environment. Work can fulfill this mediating function only with a division of labour which involves a stock of technical knowledge and norms of cooperation — even in cases where division of labour is structured by social domination. This also means that, from an evolutionary point of view, work plays both productive and reproductive roles: it is both a productive activity of transforming materials into consumption goods that can satisfy our vital needs and make our human forms of life ecologically sustainable, and it is the reproductive activity of educating to social norms and technical knowledge, as well as providing the services required by the cooperative structure of society that has made human forms of life possible.

Productive work consists of uses of natural environments in order to satisfy a set of biological needs, but it also produces transformations in natural environments, turning them into partly artificial ones, which then generate new needs and new uses of natural environments. Representations, including representations of nature, are crucial for orienting productive work and therefore crucial for the quality of the human effect on human environments too. All of this means that, more than any other animal, humans are niche constructors. Nowadays, the implications of this anthropological fact are denoted by the term “anthropocene”, even if the problem with the anthropocene is not the specificity of human niche construction, but the forms it has taken since the emergence of capitalism.

Work can either sustain, as in foraging societies, or destroy these environments, as under capitalism. The challenge is to transform destructive work into sustaining work without returning to foraging. What is required for tackling this challenge is not only a critical theory of capitalism — the existing economic system of production for profit rather than for use, and instrumentalization of social cooperation to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Additionally, there is a need for a critical theory of our uses of the natural and artificial environments, a reactualized theory of “use value”, as well as for a critical theory of the norms of cooperation, a theory that would question the allocation of wages and prestige, something which is currently far from being based on the ecological and social value of the professions. What is demanded is also a critical theory of work that undermines the hegemonic definition of work as a consumption of raw materials, including one’s body, rather than as a fruitful use of these material and bodily instrumentalities. In fact, this hegemonic definition provides an ideological justification both for the exploitation of nature and for the exploitations of workers.

Marta Pohlmann-Kryszkiewicz, "Third Landscape"

Reconstruction and experimentation

When intellectuals no longer have the chance of being organic intellectuals of a massive social movement, but still want to remain sincere, their task is chiefly critical. Therefore the philosophical industry, in critical theory is mass producing norms and models of social critique, and many empirical inquiries from a critical sociological point of view. Whereas their value should not be underestimated, for naturalist critical theory, the various normative, epistemological and empirical contributions to social critique are not enough. What matters is also the reconstruction of the criticized state of affairs. Our relations to our natural and artificial environments, our drives, our habits of conduct and thought, our systems of institutions, all that has to be reconstructed. In order to work toward these goals, new critical models have to be elaborated that take into account the ecological, technological and economic constraints that are at play in our relations to our natural and artificial environments, as well as the anthropological constraints defined by our psyche and the inertia of our habits, and the sociological constraints bearing on the practice of social transformation. What is required is to elaborate models of social critique that are also models of social experimentation, models that would be intimately linked with knowledge of these constraints and with practical imagination of solutions.

Mara Kirchberg, "WETSCAPELAND", Photo by Gisèle Gonon & Mara Kirchberg

Beyond ideological naturalism and ideological antinaturalism

Theorists and theories have a tendency to overshoot. The exaggeration has a tendency to become habitual and unreflective over time and with academic socialization. Critical theory is especially prone to this process of ossification as it comforts itself by the assurance of being “critical” by default: what begins as critique turns easily into dogma. The critique of “naturalism”, “essentialism”, “naturalistic fallacy” and so on has become an automatic reflex to an extent that it is an obstacle for addressing global warming, metabolic rift, zoonotic spillover and the myriads of ways in which culture is essentially related to nature. Whereas the evils of social thought implicated in or explicitly preaching ideological forms of naturalism are well-known and forever something to be vigilant about, the current situation forces a clear-headed assessment of social thought which abstracts from nature, thereby forming a mirror image and contributing to the lethal practical illusion of independence from nature. All of the original worries concerning naturalism need to be revisited without prejudice, so as to achieve a perspective which is neither ideologically naturalist, nor ideologically anti-naturalist, but that of Critical Naturalism.

Marta Pohlmann-Kryszkiewicz, "Third Landscape"

Freedom and life

Freedom is an inescapable ideal for critical and emancipatory thought and action, but the dominant models of freedom are at best inadequate for grasping the constitutive connectedness of humanity with nature and at worst complicit with the current crisis or ongoing catastrophe. The concept of freedom as autonomy or self-determination is in this regard no less problematic than the simpler concept of negative freedom: it easily lends itself to the hubristic fantasy of independence from nature. Such independence can never be actually given and practical attempts to bring it about can only take the form of increasingly drastic attempts to dominate nature, to keep its irreducibly independent dynamics and indifference to human concerns at bay and out of mind. The psychoanalytic lesson about the folly of attempts to force internal nature into submission apply even more so in the relation with external nature. So does its lesson about freedom: the abstract concept of freedom as independence or abstraction from what necessarily determines one—an individual, a collective, or humanity—is self-subversive and destructive when applied in practice. The only real, concrete form of freedom with regard to what we are constitutively related to and thus determined by is reconciliation that acknowledges its otherness but overcomes the hostility in the relationship. It is this unity of difference and unity, or being with oneself in otherness—to use the famous Hegelian formula—that characterizes the ideal of a free relation of a human individual with her body, as well as of a human community with external nature. As processes of life never cease, freedom in this sense is never given once and for all, but is always a task to define the specifications of and to aspire to. If we fail in this task, we will die out. As Hegel reminds us: the ends of freedom cannot be separate from the ends of life.

Mara Kirchberg, "WETSCAPELAND", Photo by Gisèle Gonon & Mara Kirchberg

Affects and critique

The emotional and affective dimensions of our habits, institutions, norms and practices are of crucial importance, both for philosophy and for life. Living, social, human and nonhuman beings are shaped and driven by non-cognitive, non- or pre-intentional, non-linguistic, non- or pre-rational affects. Beings try to articulate affects in specific emotions (fear, hope, joy, anger, love, hate, guilt, shame, enthusiasm, etc.). Affective and emotional aspects of individual and collective selves, of their bonds and associations, of their interactions with the environments are not only a fact – they can also contribute to imaginative, critical and transformative practice. Critical Naturalism, contrary to most positions in the contemporary landscape of critical theory and social philosophy, tries to understand the imaginative, critical and transformative dynamics of affects and emotions.

Affective experiences are vague, incomprehensible, uncontrollable, inchoate, confusing, at least in many phases of experience. As such, they can signal a non-alignment between our present and our future selves, between given orders (patterns of action, meanings, values, norms) and what these orders could be and become, how habits are disrupted and must be readjusted. But they can also be destructive, harboring anti-social forces. Emotions, for their part, are conscious signs of breaks and disruptions – they express awareness of how things should not be, or how they could be different.

We are sensual beings in the sense of the young Marx and of Dewey: our task is to explore the critical and transformative powers of the affects and emotions that all our senses generate in non-alienated and non-reified transactions with other human and nonhuman beings, with organic and nonorganic environments.

Marta Pohlmann-Kryszkiewicz, "Natural Forms"

Natural vulnarability

Affects and emotions reveal the specific and contextual ways in which human (and nonhuman) beings are vulnerable, the extent to which vulnerability is concretely and contextually shared. They indicate possible venues for acknowledging, taking up and organizing socio-natural bonds so that vulnerability can become a possibility for alternative, radical social and political experiments. Affects and emotions reveal how different beings are vulnerable in different ways – also on the basis of socio-natural determinations like sexuality, gender, race, disability, etc. – and indicate ways in which such differences can come to produce, increase and share knowledge and mutual care, instead of perpetrating and strengthening mechanisms of domination, oppression, and exploitation. The recognition of vulnerability is not giving in to politics of precariousness, tendencies to produce ‘victims’ and reify the discriminated, misrecognized and invisible: on the contrary, the recognition of vulnerability supports the critique of these policies and tendencies.

Cherishing the opaque, uncommendable, impulsive, and thus vulnerable sides of our lives calls into question current neoliberal imperatives of self-optimization, “enforced happiness”, positive thinking in the face of catastrophes, practices of mindfulness as individual(ized) strategies against systemic and structural problems. We cannot effectively manipulate and control ourselves (our internal nature) in order to obtain the desired goals, we are not merely the object of constant creation and invention. But affects and emotions are not just limits; they also entail positive contents from which we can learn. In this sense, Critical Naturalism can be the metaphysical spring- (or surf)board for new ethical projects (some ideas: ethics of passivity, ethics of ambiguity, ethics of ignorance).

Marta Pohlmann-Kryszkiewicz, "Third Landscape"

Third natures

The contrasting use of the notions of nature and society, first and second nature, does not refer to metaphysically given, separate domains of objects, but rather articulates an expressive vocabulary for developing social analysis. Nature and society, first and second nature are dialectically intertwined place-holder concepts, to be filled pragmatically in relation to different contexts, concepts which disclose certain configurations of experience and action. In this sense their distinction is a dispositive, which needs to be deployed anew in relation to the contexts we need to map, operate within, and critically transform. Hence, the distinction between first and second nature is contextual and positional and has not only descriptive, but also critical and dialectical power. It deploys the perspective from which, from time to time, we can critically re-describe processes of associated life. But the breaking down of given social categories, by the application and determinate negation of the notions of first and second nature, is also future oriented, and has a utopian moment, aimed at a trans-categorial, affirmative re-description of our forms of life and of their emerging, dynamic, yet undecided orders of possibilities. One could say that third nature is what Critical Naturalism, with the place-holder notions of first and second nature, aims at. The re-configurative task of critical naturalism is confronted today, in the face of the ecological catastrophe and the entropic transformations of contemporary landscapes, with the problem of anticipating the future while grasping a third way between primordial nature and reified second nature, wild nature and humans’ enslaved nature: the problem of re-imagining natures, through cultural and technological means, and conversely, of reinventing third natures as plural, contingent, hybrid orders. In his Essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin raised the question of how we can free ourselves from the historical cage of a given second nature as it has been shaped through a relation — labelled as “first technology” — to naturalness as to an external material to be dominated. Whereas second nature, as it is historically given, is a distorted mirror of human beings’ domination over first nature, the utopian moment of Critical Naturalism envisages a third possibility, whose anticipated figure could let us catch a glimpse of a different relation, which goes beyond both the mere naturalization of human beings, and the humanization of nature. Benjamin named “second technology” a different project of our relation to naturalness, whose objective correlative, in the horizon of the future, could be aesthetically anticipated through the figure of third natures. Their traces can be detected in those interstitial, undecided territories Gilles Clement names “third landscapes”, which are left over, unattended by human beings and their historical constructions, and appear as undetermined fragments, ciphers of the planetary garden.

Marta Pohlmann-Kryszkiewicz, "Third Landscape"