November 20, 2021

Week 9: Nature and Culture

Positions & Practice

Figure 1: Conteh 2021. Fragments. [Online]. Available at:

"Today our sight is a little weary, burdened by the memory of a thousand images… We no longer see nature; we see pictures over and over again."
—Cézanne (BORN 2019)

But what is nature?

The idea of 'nature' is at the core of science, considered its flagship and most profound link with human societies. Yet, the concept of nature has never been theorised and has been used to name more and more diverse things and their opposite.

Aristotle (384-322 BC), known to be one of the world's most influential thinkers, defined nature as "the essence of things, what they are made of and entail their destiny: the nature of a bed or of a tree is wood" (Ducarme and Couvet 2020). However, he concedes this definition is only partial, and the word is used with many different meanings and is often contradictory.

Philosophers such as Cicero later introduced a classical opposition between nature and culture. Nature, being an initial state devoid of human influence and culture, corresponding to an appropriation by human societies.

Influenced by Plato's dualism that placed spirit higher than matter, nature lost its status as sacred (as it once included human and god). Now it represented raw material given to men to make the earth full and be masters of it. Hence, the material world progressively lost its divine property and moral value in Europe and was entirely open for appropriation and exploitation.

In parallel with this linguistic evolution, scientists and philosophers often remained remarkably cautious with this word, and many of them repeated Aristotle's suspicion. Consequently, "nature", which used to be the core concept of philosophy and science, is nowadays not considered a philosophical concept or a scientific term.

Several conflicting meanings of the word "nature" are recorded together in European dictionaries as a heritage of this history, shown and categorised in table 1.

Definitions of nature

Table 1: List of main current definitions of "nature" in western dictionaries (Ducarme and Couvet 2020).

This situation is problematic because meanings of "nature", designating what is opposed to humans, currently used in public policies, conservation science, or environmental ethics, appears rare, recent, and contradictory with most other visions of nature. When proposing policies, nature preservation should consider this semantic diversity to avoid integrating the relativity and potential inaccuracy of the currently dominating definition (Ducarme and Couvet 2020).

Since my recent works, research proposal, and final major project address issues connected with the environment, defining nature and sorting things manufactured or nature is paramount to my practice. The lack of a theorised concept of nature creates ambiguity when attempting to construct visual representations of nature. However, this inexactness has allowed for subjectivity in my interpretation of nature. As I work towards my final major project, which explores waste, this ambiguity may prove problematic.

But this ambiguity of nature is further exacerbated in the discourse on waste; as Iovino and Oppermann put it, "molecular garbage has infiltrated earth, water, and air" (Iovino and Oppermann 2012). Trash is everywhere, literally, even in our human bodies (e.g. microplastic). In the word of Yaeger, "trash has become a material for enacting the exultations of an older sublime," nature (Yaeger 2008), which further dissolves the nature/culture binary.

The constitution nature and culture, human and non-human, are now so enmeshed that they cannot be delineated from each other (Bragard 2013). Which begs the question, what does this mean for human identity?


  • BORN, Dorothea. 2019. ‘Nature Gone Wild’. Edited by Photo Works North and Ireland) Gallery of Photography (Dublin. Source : the photographic review 99, 22–5.
  • BRAGARD, Véronique. 2013. ‘Introduction: Languages of Waste: Matter and Form in Our Garb-Age’. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 20(3), 459–63.
  • DUCARME, Frédéric and Denis COUVET. 2020. ‘What Does “Nature” Mean?’ Palgrave Communications 6(1), 14.
  • IOVINO, Serenella and Serpil OPPERMANN. 2012. ‘Theorizing Material Ecocriticism: A Diptych’. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19(3), 448–75.
  • YAEGER, Patricia. 2008. ‘Editor’s Column: The Death of Nature and the Apotheosis of Trash; Or, Rubbish Ecology’. PMLA 123(2), 321–39.