- Asian Eels and Global Warming:A Posthumanist Perspective on Society and the Environment
My idea in this essay is to talk about how some recent developments in my field—science and technology studies—might pass over into environmental studies. In particular, I want to talk about a certain posthumanist perspective, as I call it, on the relation between people and things, because I think that it transfers nicely from thinking about people and machines to thinking about people and the environment.1 I want to say in advance that while the word 'posthumanist' might sound a bit peculiar, the posthumanist perspective is straightforward enough. If scholars have taken a long time to arrive it, the difficulty lies, I believe, in a disciplinary division of labor rather than in any intrinsic incomprehensibility. And I can start with a few general remarks about that.
The basic point to note is that the academic disciplines carve up the visible world in a systematic way. On the one hand, the natural sciences, engineering, and so on, like to talk about a world of things from which people are notably absent. This is clear in fields like physics and chemistry, but it is probably true enough in the environmental sciences, too. Human beings might disturb ecosystems, say, but the job of the ecologist [End Page 29] is to understand the systems themselves, not the disturbances. The social sciences and humanities, in contrast, like to talk about people but not about things. Durkheimian sociology is a great example. Durkheim insisted that the social was a separate reality, sui generis, and that the social therefore has its own pure dynamics, cut off from, say, the material world.
We find, then, a beautiful disciplinary dualism: to the harder sciences goes the world of things; to the softer sciences goes the world of people. What about the interface of people and things, the zone of intersection? This is of no concern to the hard sciences: one can easily imagine the world of things going on without people. But what about the soft sciences? One can't really imagine a world of people without things. Here various maneuvers have traditionally served to maintain the humanist purity of disciplines like sociology; I will just mention one. We encounter the material world, it is said, not in its raw state (as studied by physicists or ecologists, say) but as drenched in meaning. The world means something, or many different things, to us. And the point to note is that 'meaning' functions here as a cut-off, a circuit-breaker. Meanings are in our heads and in society; they are not in the material world. So, sociologists can go ahead and study the meanings that people attach to machines or nature without encroaching on the territory of the hard sciences, and the disciplinary division of labor, enshrined in the universities since the 19th century, can live on. The social sciences are about the human meanings of, or attitudes towards, machines, the environment, or whatever; the hard sciences are about things in themselves. That is the basic split that I want to focus on in what follows—actually, to undo it. But I can quickly mention one further twist for the sake of clarity.
The basic split between meanings and things-in-themselves is an index of a certain realism—a bow from the soft sciences to the harder sciences, an acknowledgment that the latter somehow gets things right and that what the soft sciences study is a soggy social residue. But some social scientists have refused to bend the knee. They argue that we are all humans, even hard scientists. Therefore we can never get beyond meanings. And therefore we should think of the material world as itself somehow constructed in social practice. The harder sciences find this view absurd, but it is manifest in a split in the social sciences between 'realists' [End Page 30] and 'constructivists'—a split which shows up in many places, including geography and environmental studies. The point I would stress, however, is that the social retains its purity, even in social constructivism—it is simply that there 'the social' expands without limit to encompass...