“Natural Space” as Social Technology

Who is Edward Abbey and why does he matter? 

In Chapter 8: “A Harsh and Hostile Land: Edward Abbey’s Politics and the Great American Desert”, Luke dives into the life of Edward Abbey and his influence on American Environmentalism. Abbey was the author of many books inspired by the environment, specifically the desert in the Southwest of the United States. In his books, both fiction and non-fiction, Abbey utilized an aesthetic vision of the desert, describing the raw beauty of the wilderness he found there when he traveled West from his home in Pennsylvania. His works are of great popularity, and his descriptions of the desert have motivated many to join environmental causes such as the Earth Liberation Front, amongst others. He has also inspired much contemporary American environmental thought, although many misinterpret who Abbey was and what, exactly, he was writing. He is often mistaken as an antimodernist, but in reality, he was more of an altermodernist who seeks the improvement of modernity through the improvement of humanity. 

Abbey was an anarchist who found solace in the nothingness of the desert, where there was nothing but himself and the open wilderness. This is what inspired one of his most popular novels, Desert Solitaire, an autobiographical account of his time in the Moab, Utah as a park ranger. For most of his life, Abbey was not a resident of the desert, and still had ties to industrial culture. However, he got to experience desert life later on in his life. In spite of his ties to the environment and the fact that many of his cult followers consider him to be so, Abbey did not consider himself an environmentalist. Instead, he considered himself to be a humanist, and let his opinions and critiques on human behavior peek through his descriptions of nature.

In the next section of the chapter, Luke explores the concept of space and how it relates to Abbey and the desert. He argues that space should not be accepted as an eternal unknown that is separate from human action but rather an important part of it. Humans shape space, and space shapes humans. In this way, space is social. There is no true, authentic space, only spaces that have been developed. Therefore, there is no such thing as an untouched wilderness because the effects of human behavior can be seen everywhere. The importance of space in environmentality is made clear when Luke states, “To focus on the environment…is to preoccupy oneself with the specific spaces and all the particular aspects..associated with their social practices” (Luke 165). He also discusses how there exists an indistinguishability between mental space and physical space. Space is also political, as individuals are expected to perform in specific ways and to have a level of competence in a social space. Abbey got political in his writings, although they may be hidden to some who read his books. He warned of destruction of the environment through urban revolution, but his writing has two meanings. Although he writes of the wilderness at the end of the road, he is critiquing what lies at the beginning: urbanization and industrialization. He celebrates the absolute space of the desert; a timeless essential organic being. To Abbey, the desert is where lived, perceived, and conceived come together within a spatial practice (Luke 172). 

In the following section of the chapter, Luke turns a focus towards politics, ethics, and aesthetics. Abbey had an impact on politics, even if that wasn’t his attempted result from writing. Such impacts included inspiring “eco-terrorists”, individuals fueled by fierce desire to protect the environment that commit crimes for the sake of combatting urban development. The government has flagged such individuals as highly dangerous terrorists that seek to harm the “American way

of life”: industrial tourism and suburbia. Abbey also had a theoretical political impact through his contrasting of rural vs. industrial spaces. He emphasized that his work is not a celebration of the environment but a warning about it, and a critique of the tragedies occurring to the American wilderness. Abbey found meaning in the untouched wilderness, which is clear when he stated, “I come more and more to the conclusion that wilderness in America or anywhere else, is the only thing left that is worth saving” (Luke 176). He stressed that his love for the wilderness stems from his humanist views and not from an environmentalist or naturalist standpoint, as he believes that nature is a necessary escape from the stresses of human life and the test against death in the desert is one of the most noble tests of all. 

A point that Luke emphasized in this chapter was that Abbey was not the environmental hero that many make him out to be. In fact, the liberal environmentalists that embrace him to this day would not have actually liked him if he was still alive. He didn’t care for feminism, gun control, Mexicans, or academia; he was not a great person. He simply was a man who wrote books about the desert. He rooted his views of liberty with the wilderness and the desert because of his anarchist views – there was no greater liberty than that of the wild. New nature writers fail to capture the political observations that Abbey did because they are the naturalists that he was not. Abbey recognized the ties between industry and the control of humanity, which is clear when Luke states “Industrial products, industrial processes, and industrial production, he realizes, form a complex system of conducting conduct by managing fear, insecurity, and desire” (Luke 183). In order to combat the American economic and political order that controls industrialization, Abbey made a call for monkeywrenching, or nonviolent disobedience, as an ecodefense.

I have attached three links: each correspond to parts of an interview done with Edward Abbey on PBS in 1982 called Abbey’s Road. He describes his views on himself, his works, and the environment. Getting to hear his perspective from the man himself is very interesting.

Abbey’s Road – Part 1
Abbey’s Road – Part 2
Abbey’s Road – Part 3

Nature Writing as Self-Technology 

This section of the blog post is focused on the Darier reading “Nature Writing as Self-Technology”. Connecting to the theme of this week’s readings, this particular reading focuses on how humans impact nature in varieties of ways. The reading focuses on the abnormalities that technology, within ourselves, poses on our bodies as well as the environment as a whole. There are many ideas brought up about whether these emotions and feelings are sinful towards the environment. 

What is the “wilderness retreat” concept and why is it important? 

Liberation of modern day luxuries. According to William Cronon, “…we are not subjects of modern culture”. Because we are not formed to be accepting of the modern way of living, we are expected to desire to be in touch with nature (Darier 172). Foulcalt says that the “wilderness is a place free from man’s schemes of mastery, a place where nature is following its own will”

(Darier 176). With today’s modern society, people are constantly subjected to unnecessary pressures and expectations. Especially with the use of social media, millennials and other young people are held to tight societal standards. 

Ted Talk Below!: 

I have attached a video about what being in touch with nature can do for a person. The speaker in this video, Lennard Duijvestijn, does a phenomenal job at describing why leaving society (even for a short period of time) is good for everyone. 

What is nature writing? 

Nature writing is a “distinct form of testimony in which the subject bears witness to mutuality between the subject and self-willing nature” (Darier 173) . According to Lawrence Buell, nature writing is considered to be “nature’s genre”. In this case, the term ‘nature’ refers to the environment outside of modern culture. Many people, including the above mentioned Edward Abbey, may believe that because the world has physically been touched by humans everywhere, there is no more “true nature” left. I would disagree with this because even though there are virtually no places left untouched, the feeling of being in an untouched environment is still prevalent anytime you go out in nature. When you leave the hustle and bustle of suburban life, you “become a true subject of nature’s will” (Darier 174). The biggest misinterpretation of nature writing is the way nature is perceived. Foulcault believes nature is a mental escape, whereas Rawlings tends to focus on the more wild side of nature (absence of material structures).

What is posthumanism? 

All of this week’s readings have required contemplation of the human relationship with nature and their environment, a core aspect of posthumanist thought. There is not one widely accepted definition of posthumanism, in fact, some critical thinkers like John Cairns use the term posthumanism in a literal sense meaning after humans (Death 177). This interpretation is far from the most popular, and for that reason we will focus on posthumanism as it relates to the relationship between humans and the non-human. Posthumanism “[challenges] the notion of human exceptionalism” (Death 175) and anthropocentrism. Posthumanism veers from the beliefs of many religions that humans are in some way “special or chosen species” and towards the idea that humans have moral responsibility not only to other humans, but also across species barriers. 

I’ve linked a video to a song by cyberpunk artist Grimes titled, “Be a Body”. Cyberpunk is a genre commonly known for its post-human themes. Grimes takes a different approach of exploring posthumanism by contemplating what it means to be human in many of her songs. Her view on posthumanism is heavily shaped by the idea of technology isolating us from our bodies and human nature. See if you can pick up any parallels between this song and some of Darier’s points about escaping technology and getting back to nature. All and all an interesting perspective coming from the partner of AI guru, Elon Musk! 

What is complexity theory and how does it relate to posthumanism?

 When I first read the words “complexity theory” I was immediately disheartened by the positioning of “complex” and “theory” together in a sentence. Complexity theory is not, however, quite as daunting as it seems. The essence of complexity thinking is that systems are both open and interconnected. This idea lays the framework for the posthumanist approach focused on in the Death reading. It serves as a counter argument to humanocentric views “by stressing the interconnected and overlapping character of human and non-human systems.” (Death 180) The idea that nothing occurs in isolation is a central concept of complexity thinking. 

Contemplating posthumanism through complexity thinking effectively opens up a conversation between posthumanism and critical environmental politics. Breaking through the species barrier and thinking of actions within human systems as interconnected with all other natural systems could lead to breakthroughs on how all decisions are made. Posthumanist thought brings humans closer to living “‘of nature’ rather than ‘in nature’.”(Death 175) 

Complexity theory relates closely with Abbey and Darier’s rejection of the existence of “untouched nature”. Seeing the first two authors grapple with the human experience allows Death’s insights on posthumanism to bring all three readings from this week full circle. Perspectives on nature, or more specifically, how we write about nature has a monumental role in shaping how humans interact with nature.

Authors: 

Cricket Spillane 

Christa “Cricket” Spillane is a senior from Middleburg, Virginia studying International Relations with minors in Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, Leadership and Social Change, and Spanish. Her interests lie in the realm of human rights, most specifically gender equity, gun control, and the fight against human trafficking. When she’s not busy running Campus Cookies in Blacksburg, you can find her with her pets streaming video games on Twitch. 

Regan Westwood 

Regan Westwood is a senior studying Environmental Policy and Planning, and Smart and Sustainable Cities from Potomac, MD. She is also a first year student in the accelerated Masters in Urban and Regional Planning program. Her academic interests include urban agriculture, environmental justice, and stormwater management. Most of her free time is consumed by her position as a captain of the Virginia Tech Diving Team, but when she is throwing herself off of a 10 meter platform you can find her biking or reading. 

Spencer Tuttle 

Hi Hokies! My name is Spencer Tuttle; I am a sophomore majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics X Public Health, minoring in Ecological Cities. I am from Staunton, Virginia. In high school, I was on the cross country, indoor/outdoor track, swim, and soccer teams. I am currently on the VT Women’s Rowing Team, so you can find me on Claytor Lake any day of the week! When I’m not rowing at Claytor, I am most likely kayaking at Claytor (my kayak is red and

named Ruby). My favorite part about being a Hokie, aside from living in the New River Valley, is that VT fosters a community that has something for everyone. 

References 

Bowerbank, S. (1999). “Nature as Self-Technology.” In Darier, Eric ed. Discourses of the

 Environment. Blackwell Publishers. 

Stephen Hobden. “Posthumanism” Chap. 18 in Death, Carl ed. Critical Environmental Politics. New York: Routledge Press, 2013. 

Luke, Timothy W. “Chapter 8: A Harsh and Hostile Land: Edward Abbey’s Politics and the Great American Desert.” Anthropocene Alerts Critical Theory of the Contemporary as Ecocritique. Candor: Telos, 2020. Print.