Christopher Manes on 'Nature and Silence'
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At the beginning of this essay, Manes quotes a Tuscaroa Indian: ‘the uncounted voices of nature are dumb’ (qtd. in Han Peter Duerr, Dreamtime , 90). Manes responds by stating: ‘Nature is silent in our culture (and in literate societies generally) in the sense that the status of being a speaking subject is jealously guarded as an exclusively human prerogative’ (15).
Manes notes that in animistic cultures nature is usually inspirited:
animals, plants and even “inert” entities such as stones and rivers are perceived as being articulate and at times intelligible subjects, able to communicate and interact with humans for good or ill. In addition to human language, there is also the language of birds, the wind, earthworms, wolves and waterfalls – a world of autonomous speakers whose intents (especially for hunter-gatherer peoples) one ignores at one’s peril’ (15).
Manes refers to Foucault and his theory of social power being controlled by privileged speakers who are taken seriously ‘as opposed to the discourse of “meaningless” and often silenced speakers such as women, minorities, children, prisoners, and the insane’ (16). Manes believes that we need ‘a viable environmental ethics to confront the silence of nature’, because ‘within this vast eerie silence that surrounds our garrulous human subjectivity […] an ethics of exploitation regarding nature has taken shape’ (16).
Manes turns to deep ecology and its ‘link between listening to the non-human world (i.e. treating it as a silenced subject) and reversing the environmentally destructive practices modern society pursues’ (16). (See Duerr, Dreamtime, 92). Yet Manes notes that John Dryzek rejects this idea suggesting that it has overtones of ‘latent totalitarianism’ (16). (See Dryzek, ‘Green Reason’, Environmental Ethics, 12(1990): 200). Instead, with reference to Habermas, Dryzek apparently invests in a rational communication with the nonhuman. Bookchin is also mentioned as a theorist that sees reason as having its own ratio and ecology. (See The Ecology of Freedom).
But Manes asks, what about the origins of the silence in nature? He wants to elude the dichotomy of rational and irrational rather ‘taking silence itself […] as a cue for recovering a language appropriate to an environmental ethics’ (17). How did nature move from being an entity invested with animism to a thing of symbolism only?
Manes recalls Heidegger’s comment that language both conceals and reveal. (See An Introduction to Metaphysics, 93-206). Manes believes that our idiom along with our belief in the intellect, reason and progress have created silences. For Manes, there is now a need for ‘a new language free from the directionalities of humanism, a language that incorporates a decentered, postmoderm, post-humanist perspective’ (!7).
Manes quotes Mircea Eliade on shamanism, when she suggests that by learning animal or bird languages, one can discover the secrets of nature. Animism involves the following beliefs:
• ‘all the phenomenal world is alive in the sense of being inspirited – including humans cultural artefacts and natural entities, both biological and inert’ (17-18);
• and ‘the nonhuman world […] is filled with articulate subjects, able to communicate with humans’ (18).
Manes wonders if in the modern world it is machines that are invested with animism. He notes though that some primal groups have no world for ‘wilderness’ and that the civilising impulse is not essential to all humans. So what caused it? Manes has two answers: literacy and Christian exegesis.
Manes quotes Jacky Goody who believes that the alphabet brought the ability to think in abstracts. (See The Domestication of the Savage Mind, 37). Manes notes that ‘epistemological inference’ is supposed to be impossible in oral cultures in which language is simply ‘evanescent utterances’.
Manes also quotes David Abram who suggests that our relation to texts is animistic. Subjectivity is equal with the written word and texts represent the human and are outside nature.
Christian exegesis explores beyond the literal to discover a moral truth and then a divine purpose. Manes notes that in the twelfth century, Hugh of St Victor used the phrase, ‘the book of nature’. Nature is configured as clues to a deeper meaning. The eagle, for example, represents St. John and his apocalyptic vision in Christian symbology. It is not autonomous.
In the Middle Ages, nature often represented the ‘glory and orderliness of God’ (20). The ‘dumb beasts’ had a place in the hierarchy in which homo sapiens featured as the highest of ‘lower life forms’. Darwin offered the challenge that human beings were no more important than other species in the nineteenth century, yet evolution is still thought of in terms of a scala naturae .
Ecology encourages a sense of the biosphere: ‘As hominids we dwell at the outermost fringe of important ecological processes such as photosynthesis and the conversion of biomass into usable nutrients’ (24).
Bill Dervall in Deep Ecology suggests that ‘deep ecology involves learning a new language’ (24). Manes wonders if we could draw on ‘the ontological egalitarianism of native American or other primal cultures, with their attentiveness to place and local processes’ (25). Manes concludes that his essay is not an attack on reason itself, but an expression of ‘the need to dismantle a particular historical use of reason, a use that produced a certain kind of human subjects [?] that only speaks soliloquies in a world of irrational silences’ (25).
The Ecocriticism Reader . Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1996. 15-29.