Nature, Nurture and the Mature Future

Nature, Nurture and the Mature Future (On Avoiding Ourselves)

            Though selfhood is not thinghood, we have placed in our way a number of distractions that help us avoid the basic challenge of ongoingness. The fabric of this temporal vestment we are compelled, as living beings, to don and to wear and thence wear out, is such that while it admits entry to several kinds of origins, it is nevertheless something placed upon us, and which does not have as its source who we are as persons. In short, though only at first glance, the difference between nature and nurture is the same difference as exists between the what and the who. If one is content only to be a thing, then natural selection can suffice. But if one wishes to develop their fuller humanity, to become a who and not merely a what, then it is to culture we must turn, and in a sense, turn into. For it is only culture which provides an identity beyond that mammalian, and this in turn is a species-shared identity, quite apart from all of its diverse guises. Yes, there are a number of ‘sources of the self’, as it were, most of them outside of our ken and afar from our reflection, but at the same time we, with a gritty panache, come to embody and even to ‘own’ much of this source material, even if we as often feel that it also possesses us.

            This veteran selfhood, ‘mature being’ as Gadamer has referred to it, represents the dialectical pinion resting uplifted from both nature and nurture. The ‘debate’ between their thesis and antithesis is, unless seen dialectically, a false one. There is no either/or at work or at stake. We are at first animals which are then encultured to become human beings. That this socialization process begins perhaps even before birth is suggestive that our animal ‘nature’ is something to be overcome, something that culture takes pride in moving beyond, just as we might well take a similar sense of accomplishment away from having become our own persons yet within a culture. We are perplexed by this movement, even so, and I imagine that this is what is part of the elemental puzzle of ‘when’ a human being begins to become human, at birth or rather even at conception. For the vast majority of human existence, humanness does not appear, at least fully, until one had survived the first difficult years of life itself, say, in social contract societies, until age 6 or so. This first and most difficult accomplishment is celebrated through renaming rituals, and indeed, the infant and small child in these primordial societies were not generally given a name at all, reflecting the shocking mortality rate at large. Another new name at puberty and after perhaps a month of passage, almost immediate adulthood. Another new name with the marriage bond, and then finally a pseudonym, so that the living might still refer to the now unspeakable dead.

            Van Gennep, in 1909, was the first to codify the four-square rites of passage, as he first called them – birth, puberty, marriage, death – and though they resonate with us today, we have made into signage what once were assignations. And there is yet another wrinkle; that selfhood is not identical with one’s humanness, just as one’s person is not the same as one’s culture, one’s individuality not always in line with one’s society. Hence the lazy idiom ‘human nature’, which no thinking person would ever dare to utter in response to what is in fact habitus at most, irresponsibility at worst. There is no singular nature which is human, for to be human is to be a being of both language and history, both of which change, sometimes radically, over time. What remains within our essential condition as Dasein is, on the one hand, the anxiety of our running-along, and on the other, the care which we bring to our thrown projects. The apex of this more telling triangle is concernful being, itself a prequel to the mature being noted above. And if cheap talk of human nature is one common exeunt from the confrontation with both the tradition – a weighty but wholly cultural habitus and historical inertia – and of equal import, that with myself, we hold a number of other pleasant pleasures to ourselves when avoiding the day-to-day dalliance with our ownmost demise.

            Nostalgia is perhaps the most insidious of these entanglements, but the base thrill of authority and its exertion is another commonplace instance. In the one, I am free to do nothing and let everything be done for me, as it ‘must’ have been in some imagined social horizon, dimly perceived through dimwitted lens. In the second, I am free to do everything to another, and thence have them carry out my bidding. The family unit is the crucible in which their dark alchemy is carried on, to the detriment of any and all children. In the one, the child is regressed, which is convenient for our consumer economy, and in the second, she is enslaved, which in turn produces complacency for the State. If we adults bemoan the absence of courage in our politicians, we are only ourselves to blame, since we tend to desire cowardice in our children, and some, yet more evil, even take pleasure in it.

            So, let us suggest that the selfhood of self might be a way in which to distinguish the appearance, however belated, of mature being in the individual person who has also, through this same process and crossing over this same limen, moved from mere individuation to individuality. Certainly, it is a daunting prospect; this sense of aloneness, without or within the prop of aloofness or even astuteness, but the grace of adult life allows for a number of runs at it. I am unaware of anyone who has made the full hit the very first time, and perhaps it is the case that it is a cumulative affair, and after all, who’s counting? And it is doubtful that one can play the probability game with life-course maturing, as if one seeks to roll a twenty but one has five rolls of the relevant polyhedral to sum such a number before one is out of chances. So, if the looking glass self provides a basis upon which to construct a later selfhood, the elemental anxiety and care of Dasein’s thrownness develops itself upshifted into a concernful being which is the conscience of this selfhood experienced as mine ownmost compass. The cardinal directions have been exposed for what they are; if meritorious aesthetically or ethically, they are not so much thoughtlessly heeded but at least noted as benchmarks, but if they are hollow, their idols are toppled through the sheer and simple withdrawal of our specific idolatry of them. No God can exist without believers.

            The question of ‘believing in oneself’ too has been adulterated in false adulation. It occurs most commonly in hortatory manuals that describe in lurid and very material terms what the ‘good life’ is supposed to be, and to be about. One has ‘arrived’ when one attains a certain status, both in one’s professional field of expertise, in one’s purchase of esteemed real estate, through one’s trophy spouse, or even in smaller instances such as the auto one drives or where one takes a vacation. All of this sounds very 1950s, but is it truly the case that we have left these markers behind us? I would hazard rather that even the more recent in-group status-seekers have their own versions of ‘arrival’, whether feminist or queerist, transist or ethnist and so on. And what of the non-European non-binary person driving the German SUV, a common sight in any urban center. Like the creationist who also drives a similar vehicle, seemingly unaware of the essential contradiction this embodies, or blithely able to ignore it, the post-colonial culture critic, through their frontage and their rewritten self-esteem, is nevertheless a novel participant in the same sources of the self which had given all those cultures ever without a conception of the self an almost ontological pause. One might proffer a simple slogan here; ‘The West is evil but by gods I want to be Western’.

            In one’s own way, of course. And in working towards this renewed self-interest, the non-European will inevitably encounter the same existential challenges we ourselves have come to know so well. In adopting a self-conception, the traditional cultural suasions of kinship and tribe drop away. The entanglement here is the same one Europeans endured several centuries ago, and also explains in the fuller part the regressive temper and backsliding tempo of immigration societies; those whose ancestors left Europe never underwent the maturing their newly estranged relatives would, not unlike when a native of Paris visits Quebec and is bemused by the fact that there, the Francophones speak as if it were still the 17th century. All of those peasants and religious fanatics thrown up on indigenous shorelines the world over! Is it any wonder that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound found solace in Europe, only to reject it through a neo-Catholic recidivism for the one, a Neo-fascist recidivism for the other. Yes, Europe has grown stale, comfortable, weak-kneed and smug, but perhaps the perduring subsistence of the querying and querulous Cossack, as well as that of the adolescent and absolutist Yankee will provide for the best of Western thought a cracked mirror, wherein it can identify the fissures of its own latter-day revolution.

            Might it not be the same thing, writ small, for the denatured yet over-nurtured self? We each of us can stand for querying, for another to question our oft-drab druthers, just as we might be enlightened, once again, by all those who did not cross over the first time. If so, if we can step aside from all that we feel we ‘need’ to maintain both our status and our esteem, we might then discover the threshold to mature culture is much closer than we would have surmised. We might indeed begin to understand that to be fully human is not to rely on any rite of passage but to have become one’s ownmost movement of being, engaging the fusion of horizons whilst engaging in concernfulness. To know this would be to know the history of Being itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Mein Banff

Mein Banff: on Environmental Fascism

            While we generally shun the conception of a specifically human purity post-Nuremberg, and rightly so, we continue to indulge it many other aspects of contemporary life, from pet-breeders to horse-racers to hygienic and cleaning products to the idea of nature itself. Given that the Third Reich made purity its ideal in all things, it might serve us well to take a brief critical look at how we have duplicated this sensibility. Indeed, it may be too rapid a validation of our present-day ethics to completely absolve ourselves of even the most dangerous application of the concept, that to human beings, given the rise of a great diversity of nationalist and sectarian movements around the globe. Anything ‘orthodox’, anything ‘indigenous’, anything gnostic or centered upon a too-specific way of life whether identified with one’s ethnic enclave or one’s religious faith or yet one’s network or neighborhood, is at risk for sliding with rabid ritualism into the slough of ‘the pure’.

            One may well wonder if the fetishization of nature associated with the environmentalist movement is both a decoy from, and a substitute for, the indictment against the craving of such purities within humanity itself. The arresting of climate change and thus the salvation of nature as we have known it is touted as a sensibility that all sane persons would accept. This alone is suggestive of a kind of fascism; if you do not agree with us, you must be nuts. And nature cannot be left to its own designs given our encroachments, though national park systems are a nice touch, and most people who can afford to actually visit them leave with some sense of awe; nature is truly a radically alien thing and it has not only nothing to do with us it also has, yet more astonishingly to our parochial vanities, utterly no human interest. So how is it that we humans have latched onto what is, more objectively speaking, something that gives us life as a species but otherwise contradicts everything about that life’s aspirations to become other than nature?

            Let me put this another way: the mutability of ‘human nature’, the very existence of history rather than mere instinct, is testament not to our connection with cosmic evolution but to the authentic difference that exists between what is natural and what is cultural. And we are nothing but the latter through and through; our global conflict of viewpoints and worldviews alike is but evidence for this. For if humanity had any nature in it at all, we would be far more likely to agree on fundamental things which we would then take as self-defining. Indeed, we would not be able to disagree, for instinct, the driving impetus amongst all ‘lower’ forms of life, is of a singular and unthinking force. Contrary to this, there is no singular ‘human nature’.

            The attempt to frame the wider alien nature as if it had some authentic connection with us – we are destroying ourselves when we destroy nature; this is only a partial truth at best given that culture is itself about the construction of a ‘second nature’ and the prime manner of distinguishing ourselves from it – is a misguided and ethically incorrect misunderstanding of both evolution and creation alike. Whether one is a modernist or a traditionalist – and the environmental movement hosts many of both – nature is placed on a pedestal that – if one is a traditionalist, manifests itself as the truer temple of God; or, if one is a modernist, nature is the replacement for that same God – takes on the air of purity as over against the raging impurities of humanity. Nature as purity is raped, molested, assaulted, conquered, vanquished, and humanity as impurity is the criminal actor in all of these landscapes. Seen in this way, the oddly diverse allies of nature as are found within the environmental movement can reassure themselves about their own very human anxieties. The person who aids nature is righting an historical, even an existential, wrong, while the one who does not is denying their own birthright. This sounds distressingly close to the sensibility which governed discourse about the ‘pure race’ and its duty to the wider species. The superior race was to be a role model against the miscreants of miscegenation. It held within its crucible the elements of a future humanity, bereft of all impurities as manifest in genetic faults and mental aberrations. In a word, all truly sane persons would aspire to such a future.

            If you are someone who either ignores the call to arms regarding climate and biosphere or denies its necessity, by the logic of the environmental movement you are as were the degenerates sabotaging the Reich’s attempts to improve the race and alter the history of the world. Your projects are as was degenerate art, ‘Entarteite Kunst’, and your criminality is not even fit to run the death camps which themselves were meant to cleanse us of all impurities and imperfections; to promote the true ‘nature’ of Man. The environmental state seeks to alter our shared humanity in a regressive manner in that it imagines the ‘natural man’ is one who shares with nature its own life instinct. Is it not enough that we have extinguished much of the panoply of nature’s power to enhance our own? Do we now, at the bidding of those who claim to save nature – surely but another fascist allegory; environmentalism is the belated soteriology of an otherwise atheist humanity – force ourselves to shrug off the very things that make us most human? Reason, language, art, love, none of which nature possesses, in exchange for a contrivance of Gauguin-like ‘instinct’ and Rousseauistic romance, perhaps spiced up with some Sadean symbolism and Herodian heroics when push comes to shove, as it surely must.

            Just as with those who love animals more than their fellow humans, those who love nature are, with great irony, turning their backs upon their own essential humanity, which has nothing at all to do with either purity or nature. If you are wondering about the wisdom of promoting the purity of nature Über Alles, wonder no longer. It is simply the revenge of a ‘Reich’, or state of mind that desires escape from its own limited imagination and seeks solace from both the history and reality of our shared, but conflicting, human condition.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty book in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.