The Nature of Being Human
From Environmentalism to Consciousness
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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From 1968 until her death in 1992, Gloria Fromm was my chief editor and helpmate. Her role in my life and influence in this book are great. My most valuable secondary editor and literary advisor, also departed, was my oldest friend, Bill (William F.) Shuter, who taught at Eastern Michigan University. Beyond the lives and deaths of these personae, the first jolt that generated what was to become The Nature of Being Human was the ...
Introduction. From Environmentalism to Consciousness
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On august 10, 2007, as I read the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, the trigger I’d been awaiting to get started on this introduction offered itself in the headline “Bucolic valley a magnet for urban smog.” The Associated Press news item described Arvin, California, a nonindustrial rural area located on the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, as having “the most polluted air in America.” Even without its own ...
PART ONE: ECOLOGY
1 Awakening to the “Environment”
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The discovery of “the environment”—in the contemporary sense— is far from recent. From different angles of vision, books by Roderick Nash, Donald Worster, Max Oelschlaeger, and others have given us historical accounts of this growing awareness, particularly as it accelerated in the nineteenth century. And connections, however tentative, had early been made between the environment and the human condition. A literary type like me could not have failed to notice remarks about ...
2 On Being Polluted
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Despite almost daily articles about pollution in the newspapers, the nature of life in a polluted environment remains for most people rather vague. The New York Times, for example, has had a series of startling articles about air pollution in Japan, in Riverside, California, and in Los Angeles, but my impression is that people, even those living in polluted areas, are not quite sure what the effects of it all are supposed to be. ...
3 From Transcendence to Obsolescence: A Route Map
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Although the age-old problem of the conflict between body and mind that has tortured philosophers from Plato to Kant and obsessed the Church from Augustine to Pope Paul has been resolved in modern philosophical thinking by the elimination of “mind” as an autonomous entity, the conflict would appear to have returned again to haunt us in a new guise. The idealized emphasis on “rational” in the concept of man as the rational animal that characterized Platonic-Christian thought for two ...
4 Air and Being: The Psychedelics of Pollution
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Alas indeed! The influences of the air are even more irresistible than Boswell’s prescience could have envisioned. After Darwin, Marx, and Freud, the arena of human freedom has come to seem painfully shrunken. And after contemporary environmental studies, even less remains. ...
5 Ecocriticism’s Genesis
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Although William Rueckert is usually cited as the only true begetter of the term “ecocriticism” in his 1978 essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism,”1 like just about everyone else I did not come across the term until much later. For me personally the only true begetter was Cheryll Glotfelty (formerly Burgess), from whom I received— retrospectively considered—a stunning letter in May of 1989, a form letter in fact that had also been sent out to two hundred other authors. ...
6 Ecology and Ideology
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Among the many variant histories of Western culture that could be produced, a social-psychological account of the images and figures created by human beings to represent themselves and their desires in a flattering light would not be a waste of time. The self-aggrandizing reality behind the spiritual pretensions of “image of God,” the normatives of “Reason” in the eighteenth century and “Nature” in the nineteenth, the Marxian figure of a ...
7 Aldo Leopold: Esthetic “Anthropocentrist”
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All life continues in existence by feeding on other life, favoring itself at the expense of everything else. Though crude, depressing, insane, no way has yet been found to circumvent this enabling murderousness—except by means of upbeat redescriptions, like “image of God,” “realm of freedom,” “new world order.” Thus, mice, rats, cockroaches, and the AIDS virus look to their own survival at all costs, and ...
8 Postmodern Ecologizing: Circumference without a Center
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Every now and then a reviewer finds he is sorry to have undertaken to review a book that initially looked promising, because he knows that the outcome will probably make everyone unhappy. The reviewer will be unhappy because no matter what position he takes, he will be dissatisfied with the consequences. The author of the book will be unhappy because he is almost certain to feel he has been treated unfairly. ...
9 The “Environment” Is Us
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Books dealing with ecology and environment are now a vast industry, an avalanche of information and opinion that exceeds anybody’s ken. The “environment” itself keeps growing, enlarging, encompassing, so that the environment of 1998 is a very different thing from what it was on the first Earth Day in 1970. The sheer number of disciplines that have evolved since Aldo Leopold’s landmark A Sand County Almanac of 1949 is startling—environmental medicine, environmental ...
10 Ecology and Ecstasy on Interstate 80
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On March 28, 1996, I packed up the car in preparation for a five-thousand mile automobile trip to the Southwest and California that would take me away from home for at least three weeks. The plan was to visit Tucson, Los Angeles, Davis, and Reno to see a number of friends and family members as well as to explore a few potential warm spots to which I might move in order to escape once and for all the harshness of Chicagoland’s winters. ...
11 Full Stomach Wilderness and the Suburban Esthetic
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I was inducted into the environmental movement in the early seventies as a result of an idiotic move to a seemingly idyllic farm located only fifteen miles south of the steel mills of Gary, Indiana. In those days I was not alone in being innocent of the fact that pollution traveled not just fifteen miles but fifteen hundred miles and more. But the resulting nightmare, illnesses both bodily and psychological, transformed my life and recruited me into the ranks of the ecologically committed. ...
12 Coetzee’s Postmodern Animals
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"There used to be a time when we knew. We used to believe that when the text said, ‘On the table stood a glass of water,’ there was indeed a glass of water, and a table, and we had only to look in the word-mirror of the text to see them both.” So remarks Elizabeth Costello, a novelist invented by J. M. Coetzee for a talk on realism at Bennington College in 1996 and destined to reappear in Coetzee’s novella, The Lives of Animals. ...
PART TWO: “NATURE” AND EVOLUTION
13 My Science Wars
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Although it was in the early eighties when I began to feel a growing disaffection with the radicalized academic left, a decisive nausea-inducing body blow was administered by the PMLA of January 1989. In that infamous issue appeared a letter signed by twenty-four feminist academics attacking the eminent Shakespeare scholar, Richard Levin, for “Feminist Thematics and Shakespearean Tragedy,” which had appeared in PMLA the year before. ...
14 O, Paglia Mia!
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Not so much elegiac as apostrophic—but a little elegiac too: Oh, Camille Paglia, how long can you keep this up? Even manic Italians are mortal, Dionysian as they may happen to be. Even wellsprings of energy must run dry. Even radical intelligences, when all is said and done, remain (to use a Paglism) “chthonic,” sprung from earth’s double-crossing clay. ...
15 A Crucifix for Dracula: Wendell Berry Meets Edward O. Wilson
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Edward Wilson is one of those daunting scientists who write extremely well, know several fields deeply, and have been educated in the humanities during a bygone era in which culture meant more than the tawdry pages of the Sunday Times Arts and Leisure section. Immersed in biology, entomology, ecology, he is nonetheless familiar with literature and the arts, philosophy and literary theory, the social sciences, and much else. His book on sociobiology, reissued in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition, caused ...
16 The New Darwinism in the Humanities
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Platonic idealism—the view that mind is more real than body—may have been an epochal contribution to the lifting of mankind a few notches above the savagery of the flesh, inspiring Christianity with the sense of a “higher” and less carnalized reality that led to the Cartesian establishment of mind as autonomous and supreme. But after twenty-five hundred years of grand, self-flattering illusions about the “spirituality” and autonomy of man’s unconquerable mind, a case could be made for spirituality ...
17 Ecocriticism’s Big Bang
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Like Molière’s M. Jourdain speaking prose without knowing it, classic writers were unwittingly doing ecocriticism for centuries before the genre burst forth onto the academic scene in the early 1990s. From Virgil’s Georgics to John Clare to Thoreau to Rachel Carson, sensitive people had actually noticed that they were living on and from the primal mud of Earth. Nevertheless, after many years of slow ...
18 Overcoming the Oversoul: Emerson’s Evolutionary Existentialism
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Flying back from Seattle to Tucson in July 2003, rereading Emerson for the first time in forty years before getting down to reviewing a new book about him, looking out the window to see Mount Rainier poking its snow-covered head through the clouds, I had a sudden vivid remembrance of things past, followed in rapid succession by a flash of insight, a Eureka! moment. The remembrance, like a clip from an old newsreel, replayed a scene from my almost weekly get-togethers with Joyce Carol ...
19 Back to Bacteria: Richard Dawkins’ Fabulous Bestiary
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"Fabulous” suggests a fable, but Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale1—a reverse journey of sorts from Homo sapiens to the primal blob—is in large part fact, in slightly smaller part inspired speculation, and in still smaller part artful fabrication. Only a master of the game of evolutionary history could have produced an opus as grandly magnum as this one. ...
PART THREE: CONSCIOUSNESS
20 Muses, Spooks, Neurons, and the Rhetoric of “Freedom”
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In the beginning, the ancients talked about the Muses; later on, Milton spoke of the Creator Spiritus; while Yeats had us rolling on the floor when he spoofed us with spooks, who brought him images for his poetry through what he called, more aptly than he realized, automatic writing. But all of them were onto something: they realized they hadn’t a clue as to where their creativity came from; it all seemed so magical, so implausible, so involuntary. ...
21 John Searle and His Ghosts
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With the obsolescence of traditional metaphysics and its attendant epistemology or “theory of knowledge,” the “transcendental” reason that once enabled philosophers to solve cosmic problems from their armchairs without even looking out the window is now being supplanted by laboratories of cognitive scientists. And the information derived from them is becoming foundational for many other disciplines ...
22 Daniel Dennett and the Brick Wall of Consciousness
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SWEET DREAMS1 is by no means the book you would want to start out with if you had never read anything by Daniel Dennett. There are two distinguished classics in his oeuvre to be read first, Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), in that order. Dealing as they do with two of the most pressing themes in current philosophy (not to mention certain of the sciences), these books would rank pretty close to the top of my list of what every twenty-first-century intellectual should know. ...
23 The Crumbling Mortar of Social Construction
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Although Steven Pinker would seem to have done a definitive job demolishing the quaint notion of the human mind as a blank slate upon which anything may be written, this strange fancy persists in the humanities and elsewhere. Witness the statement by Robert Scholes, former president of the Modern Language Association: “Yes, we were natural for eons before we were cultural—before we were human even—but so what? ...
Conclusion. My Life as a Robot
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From environmentalism to consciousness”? This book has attempted to explain the connection. My awareness of the effects of the environment on body and consciousness came about as I began to understand how toxic substances, pollution, the quality of soil in which food is grown, living near highways, chlordane, PCBs, DDT, global warming, lead in paint and dishes, and so forth are more than casually related to one’s physical and mental condition. ...
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Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2009