Review: On Nature

Review by Sabina Pachlopnikova

On the 25th of January, the Centre for Philosophy and Art hosted an event, ‘On Nature’, in collaboration with the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London. Together with artists, psychoanalysts and philosophers, the participants could reflect on our relationship to nature and what is at stake in this complicated relationship.

A Chinese-born artist based in London, Feifei Zhou, kicked off the discussion by introducing an extensive research project of more than two hundred contributors on “non-human entanglements in infrastructure.” Particularly, she discussed how feral effects impact infrastructure, creating an “undesigned effect” that influences our urban spaces. The project consists of a Feral Atlas that invites visitors to recognise “feral” worlds and observe changes and interactions in the Anthropocene. Zhou highlighted the potential contributions the project might bring to our responses to urgent environmental challenges but also emphasised the moral ambiguity of such ecologies, inviting a more holistic approach to environmental challenges. Since the project employs both artists and scientists, Zhou also pointed out the importance of storytelling combined with empirical research and human experience to observe the interaction between humans and non-human entities.

Feifei Zhou, Artist

Zhou’s presentation highlighted an important topic: the contradictions of human nature. London-based psychoanalyst William Badenhorst began by reacting to the project of Feral Atlas, calling it “beautiful, yet disturbing”, and followed up by observing that human nature is likewise contradictory. Badenhorst was especially interested in how the natural environment relates to mental illness. He illustrated our ambivalent relationship with nature in examples such as our obsession with plant-based products, even though some of them are dangerous for humans, such as heroin. The most striking example was in the case of our relationship with animals: humans see animals as good while using the term ‘animal’ as a pejorative term for other humans as in the phrase “behaving like an animal.” Badenhorst likened our relationship to nature to that of a mother: a caregiver who deprives and frustrates us. However, Badenhorst also emphasised the benefits of our connection to nature and gave clinical examples of nature re-fuelling our self-esteem, such as gardening. Finally, he pinpointed how madness could be an attempt to reconnect with the natural world.

The point on ambivalence was picked up by Dr Vanessa Brassey, a philosopher and artist based at King’s College London. In her presentation, she focused on the distinction between Nature and Super-Nature in philosophy and how “holding uncertainty” can enrich debates around the natural world. She began her enquiry by tracing approaches to nature in the history of philosophy, including ancient philosophy and scepticism. Next, Dr Brassey discussed current challenges facing philosophy regarding “intolerance of gaps” of knowledge, refusing commonsensical beliefs surrounding nature. She also foreshadowed potential solutions to the challenges in building “explanatory bridges,” coping with gaps and holding uncertainty, giving an example of pan-psychism as an experience that philosophy can explain.

Joseph Mallord William Turner Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844, Oil on canvas

A discussion followed the three presentations that focused on Badenhorst’s remark on indigenous cultures as passing energy between themselves and nature and Zhou’s short story about soil compared to the fertility of human bodies. Finally, the conversation ended on an essential point of the ethical dimensions of the Anthropocene as Zhou commented on the importance of design in the time of climate crisis. It seems that, albeit ambivalent, our relationship to nature is one of the most important relationships of our time.

Sabina is a student at Kings College London, who’s research interests include the philosophy of art, particularly literature and film, and the intersections between continental philosophy and psychoanalysis. In her spare time, Sabina also enjoys dancing ballet and learning languages.