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Nature

Nature has a number of meanings. The oldest meaning is as the essential character or quality of something. If each individual thing has its own nature, then Nature is the essential quality of everything. Nature is the vital or motivating force behind the universe. More modestly, nature may be equated simply with the universe and all its contents (rather than the force behind it). More restricted still, it is the living world (of plants and animals). The most recent use of the concept “nature” is to refer to that which is opposed to, prior to, or simply outside human society and culture. Human culture and society is artificial, having produced, manufactured or transformed through human invention and industry. Nature may be the material that is subject to this process of transformation, but it is not properly part of human society, until it has been so transformed.

It is this last sense of nature that is most relevant to cultural studies. The emphasis that the Enlightenment places on reason, and the rational order that it found in nature, is displaced by a concern with the diversity and fecundity of the organic. Nature becomes a source of spiritual values and emotion. It stands for that which is good and innocent. It is the world of the noble savage. This use is important, because it continues today, not least in the language used in advertising. It is the claim that the wheat from which your breakfast cereal is made is “natural”. Strictly the wheat is a product of human culture (or more precisely, agriculture). It is the product of hundreds of years of selective breeding. (Natural wheat would be a fairly unpalatable Ethiopian grass.) Closely associated nuances of meaning are found today in the use of “organic”.

 

This final twist of meaning in “nature” is perhaps the use that is most central to cultural studies, for it reveals much about the working of ideology. Ideology may be understood as sets of ideas and concepts that shape our understanding of the world, and crucially shape and distort that understanding so that we do not challenge or question existing power relations. Nature plays a crucial role in ideology, for if social and cultural relations and events are perceived to be natural, then they will not be challenged. They will not appear to be the product of human agency and the exercise of political power, and to challenge them will appear no more rational or sensible than challenging the law of gravity or the fact that it is raining. The Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukàcs used the phrase “second nature” to encapsulate this experience of society (1978). That which is the product of human action and invention (our society and culture) and thus that which should be full of meaning and the indications of human intention, actually confronts us as something that is as alien and as meaningless as first nature – real nature. Thus, the task of cultural theory may be to see through second nature, and so change what appears to be unchangeable.


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