Wapner 2003

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All attempts to listen to nature are social constructions-except one. Even the most radical postmodernist must acknowledge the distinction between physical existence and non-existence. As I have said, postmodernists accept that there is a physical substratum to the phenomenal world even if they argue about the different meanings we ascribe to it. This acknowledgment of physical existence is crucial. We can’t ascribe meaning to that which doesn’t appear. What doesn’t exist can manifest no character. Put differently, yes, the postmodernist should rightly worry about interpreting nature’s expressions. And all of us should be wary of those who claim to speak on nature’s behalf (including environmentalists who do that). But we need not doubt the simple idea that a prerequisite of expression is existence. This in turn suggests that preserving the nonhuman world-in all its diverse embodiments-must be seen by eco-critics as a fundamental good. Eco-critics must be supporters, in some fashion, of environmental preservation. Postmodernists reject the idea of a universal good. They rightly acknowledge the difficulty of identifying a common value given the multiple contexts of our value-producing activity. In fact, if there is one thing they vehemently scorn, it is the idea that there can be a value that stands above the individual contexts of human experience. Such a value would present itself as a metanarrative and, as Jean-François Lyotard has explained, postmodernism is characterized fundamentally by its “incredulity toward meta-narratives.”  Nonetheless, I can’t see how postmodern critics can do otherwise than accept the value of preserving the nonhuman world. The nonhuman is the extreme “other”; it stands in contradistinction to humans as a species. In understanding the constructed quality of human experience and the dangers of reification, postmodernism inherently advances an ethic of respecting the “other.” At the very least, respect must involve ensuring that the “other” actually continues to exist. In our day and age, this requires us to take responsibility for protecting the actuality of the nonhuman. Instead, however, we are running roughshod over the earth’s diversity of plants, animals, and ecosystems. Postmodern critics should find this particularly disturbing. If they don’t, they deny their own intellectual insights and compromise their fundamental moral commitment. (Wapner 2003, online)

Here we have an interesting defense of nature, however, this argument still bothers me the same way ‘greens’ bother me.  Preserving nature is all well and good, but often that preservation comes at the expense of material conditions that could improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  For example, I am not talking about tearing down an old-growth forest so we can produce more pink mini-skirts, but rather tearing it down so we can plant more soy, or cilantro or some other food product.

Being ‘green’ is often a privileged position that requires a certain flexibility only affluence can provide.  The criticism to cutting down the old-growth forest for food production then turns to current inefficient productions: we could easily feed everyone if less meat were eaten.  I have no dispute with that argument, however, poor people are often not in the position where they can meet the ‘green’ alternative.  The greens are good about trying to change those conditions but in their cautions and delays it is the poor and not the overconsumptive that bear the costs.

Wapner makes the same error when he talks about the ‘other.’  There is no single other, instead there are others.  Wapner, however, reduces them to the same and then treats them all with the same ethic.  Applauding his consistency aside, this is too easy.  The starving child in the favela deserves more respect than the still-unkown, and hence unexpressed, flora/fauna in the rain forest.  I can get on board with Wapner in a larger criticism about the way the world is structured, but this argument only further shackles the poor as we wait for a change in that structure to happen.

This is precisely what happens in our haste to shuck the grand narratives a la Lyotard.  While I am willing to reform and accommodate, it is important to keep in mind that there are grand struggles.  I am not persuaded that postmodernity’s toolkit necessarily results in relativism resembling apathy, but I am persuaded that the toolkit is easily misapplied into a consumptive apathy.  We must constantly be on guard for this deflation of concern for the other.  One tool the system uses for that deflation is to push us into a concern for an other that cannot speak, allowing us to instead neglect the other that is not only speaking but yelling at us.

Wapner, Paul.  (2003).  Leftist criticism ofDissent, Winter.

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2 thoughts on “Wapner 2003

  1. ejb

    Black mini-skirts, though require some consideration. I mean, how old is the forest? How diverse its ecology? How short are we talking about? These are not idle questions.

  2. tneal Post author

    They are not idle questions, these questions of threshold, but they come from the wrong object. Instead of how old the forest we should be asking “how hungry?” At some threshold it should be irrelevant how old the forest and how diverse the ecology. “How hungry” should also envelope a discussion of alternatives, however. There is value to an old growth forest, the greens just happen to have the priorities flipped in importance, understandable given their social locations.

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