Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Approaches to Nature

The third theme aims to develop critical research into and constructive cross cultural engagement regarding the concept of “nature” and “natural.” Western scholars have critically analyzed the ways in which what is “natural” is often used as a justification for all sorts of normative claims (Butler 1993). For instance, historically, the claim that the male gender or white race was “naturally” superior to women and other races respectively, was widely used to justify oppression (Plumwood 2002). Likewise, such language is often used in debates about sex and sexuality: a certain type of sexuality and sex—heterosexuality between cisgendered males and cisgendered females—is deemed to be natural while all others—gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered, and intersexed peoples—are considered to be unnatural (Schiebinger 1993). Such claims are always already social claims read into nature, here understood quasi-theologically as the unquestioned metaphysical underpinning of cultural systems (Roughgarden 2004).

Feminist, queer and other critical theories have long pointed out these shifting claims about nature. These claims at times come into conflict with environmental and scientific understandings of “nature” as they seem to suggest that there is no “there” there when it comes to nature. This makes it even harder to separate the social process by which scientific knowledge of nature is produced from the knowledge that is thereby produced, resulting in an increasing distrust of science and biomedicine (Fausto-Sterling 2012). If this is the case then how do we: (a) build a robust environmental ethic that takes account of the more than human world, without (b) reifying an understanding of nature as normative, and yet (c) take into account the material reality of climate change, species extinction and human impact upon the natural environment? Over the past several decades, many critical theories of nature have emerged in an attempt to answer this type of question. Theories found in the “new materialisms,” (Bennett 2010), the intersection of queer theory with science and nature (Barad 2007), political ecologies (Latour 2004), object oriented ontologies (Morton 2013), neo-animisms (Harvey 2015), emergence theory (Deacon 2013), and religious naturalisms, (Goodenough 1998), all attempt to develop a form of “critical realism” that understands how humans and cultures, nature and nurture, history and biology, are always already mutually implicated.

In China, the Confucian spiritual ideal of “forming one body with heaven and earth” (tianren heyi) served to authorize a politics focused on the body of the emperor as the natural mediation point between heaven, earth and humanity. To “form one body with heaven and earth” functioned as a political figure by means of which the authority of the emperor was naturalized within a metaphysics focussed on the three realms of human, heaven and earth (Miller 2016). The present environmental crisis in China is now bringing about a new reordering of “nature” with new concepts of “ecological civilization” (shengtai wenming) and “urban greening” (chengshi lühua) that are at the same time authorizing new arrangements of political power, new forms of urban living and new approaches to minority peoples outside the norms of Han “civilization.” The project will investigate how Daoist understandings of the body in relation to society and nature can contribute to the task of reframing human-nature relationships without recourse to hegemonic political order founded on a single, idealized body. In so doing, the project will expose the social processes by which the construction of a normative “nature” has historically authorized hegemonic claims regarding society and the body in China and the West. It will also propose new understandings of nature and the “natural” that are ethically defensible, scientifically robust and capable of critically transforming Chinese and Western societies in an era of ecological crisis.


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