Tuesday, July 21, 2015

142-45, Borderline


Karl Polanyi described disembedding as the ready relocation of people away
from a network of nonmarket relationships and direct participation in the
community into un-familiar (sharing a word root with family) surround-
ings. The person is resituated in an impersonalized milieu determined by
money, market abstractions, and industrial monoculture. 9 Polanyi said we
are re-embedded in that more impersonal milieu, where the market rules
as the only form of economy, and where we are now captive to that mar-
ket—which leaves us metaphysically disembedded in the sense used by Ma-
cIntyre. Instead of being embedded in community, kinship, and tradition,
we become “resources,” which can be bought and sold on the market. We
live in a society where nearly everything has been converted into a com-
modity, including ourselves. Want, even hunger, now impels us from place
to place like interchangeable parts. 10

Disembodiment corresponds not only to MacIntyre’s description of an
“individual” who is nowhere and everywhere but also to the way that mod-
ern ideas, modern language, and impersonal institutions treat the body itself
as an alienable object 11 and create the idea in the minds of actual persons
that they must experience the body, as Duden describes, through the many
mediations of institutions that thrive in a disenchanted and disembed-
ding world. We know our bodies now as instruments, which are organized
into systems, which are intelligible only through science, medicine, and
therapy—mediating, impersonal, and ever more monopolistic institutions,
instead of place, practices, kinship, friendship, and narrative community.
Max Weber’s study of bureaucracy describes the institutional disem-
bodiment created by modern bureaucracy alongside a metaphysical disen-
chantment—the world losing its sense of mystical wonder, of places losing

9. Polanyi, Great Transformation, 171–86.
10. Ibid.
11.  The implications of an “alienable body”—of a body one can even rent or sell,
while a legal “self ” remains legally separate—are covered in chapter 20, “Origin Myths.”

their sacred status. “The fate of our times,” said Weber, “is characterized by
rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment
of the world.” 12 Weber describes this process ambivalently; but Carolyn
Merchant’s book, cited in the preceding chapter, traces the genealogy of that
de-sacralization of nature by the “fathers” of the Enlightenment, calling it
“the death of nature.” 13 The objectification of nature, the reduction of nature
to mere matter and energy without meaning that was accompanied by the
elevation of natural science to a totalizing truth claim, was prerequisite for
wholesale environmental exploitation. 14

Merchant maps the history of attitudes toward nature. She shows how
the idea of nature as alive was jettisoned in the period between the Reforma-
tion and the Industrial Revolution. 15 This is dramatically different than the
dominion over the earth narrated in the Bible, which begins with an anti-
urban tract and ends with an anti-imperial one. In Scripture, there is no
doubt that human beings are granted the power to selectively subdue other
elements and creatures, but there is also little doubt that this implies a form
of humble stewardship for something—creation—which the Bible reminds
us belongs to God, as we do, and as such is sacred (Ps 50:9–12; Hag 2:8).

Every society, Christian or not, before this critical period from the six-
teenth to the nineteenth centuries, had in common some belief that nature
is both animate and aware. Natural philosophy “killed” (a feminized) na-
ture. Certain male human beings came to be understood as subjects, and the
sum of all that is not human came to be understood as objects—as things to
be acted upon, but with no vitality or awareness or naturally occurring rela-
tionship we are obliged to respect. The formerly living world was reduced to
a corpse on the anatomy table of modern science that would be dissected to
identify and catalog its disaggregated forms and functions as “facts.”

Merchant describes the de-animation of nature through the fifteenth-
and sixteenth-century alchemist Agrippa, who wanted to elevate man
alongside God in his dominion over nature (echoes of Genesis), yet who
himself still bitterly opposed mining and other rapacious extractions from
nature. Merchant says that Bacon “stood Agrippa on his head,” by agree-
ing with the apotheosis of man over nature, but insisting that the material
world be aggressively conquered and subdued 16 —all in those gendered terms

12.  Weber, “Science as a Vocation.”
13. Merchant, Death of Nature.
14.  General purpose money—sponsored by the nation-state—has been the indis-
pensible extraction-and-exchange accelerator for this ecologic destruction.
15.  This modern Western idea of a dead nature—of nature’s de-sacralization and the
masculine trope of “conquering” nature—has now become globally hegemonic.
16. Merchant, Death of Nature, 184–85.

that compared the quest for knowledge to the interrogation and torture of
witches. 17

Francis Bacon’s use of metaphors to characterize his nascent
concept of experimentation must be interpreted within the his-
torical context of his time. His approach to experimentation is
one in which nature is constrained by the “violence of impedi-
ments” and is made new by “art and the hand of man.” His lan-
guage about nature should be placed in the context of the history
of the contained, controlled experiment, a concept that emerges
from juridical practice, from the idea of nature in bonds, and
from the tradition of the secrets of nature in settings such as the
courtroom, the anatomy theater, and the laboratory. 18

The lawyer joins the anatomist. The lawyer interrogates the “witch,” as
the scientist interrogates nature, demanding her secrets, which, if necessary,
will be tortured from her. Mechanical devices, the “tools of science,” will be
used to subdue chaotic nature and impose order. Bacon cited the Bible and
claimed he was reclaiming the “dominion” over nature that the Scriptures
mandated, but there was a qualitative difference between his endeavors
and his language and that of the Scriptures that warned first and foremost
against pride.

The anatomist, like the one who claims the bodies of executed “witch-
es” for his experiments, disaggregated nature, atomized it, reduced it to
parts—the very opposite of what Illich described as a “fitted” cosmos.
Look at the change in the meaning of nature between classical
and modern times, as the historian Carolyn Merchant has done.

. . . One thing was certain in antiquity: nature was alive. There
were different and conflicting philosophical interpretations of
what nature was; but to all of them was common the certainty
that natura nacitura dicitur, that nature is a concept, an idea, an
experience derived from birth-giving. 19

Philosophy, in particular “natural philosophy,” with its highly effica-
cious means for the manipulation of nature (“violent impediments”) and
using the power of that efficacy, established itself as the new king of philoso-
phy. This came to be reflected in popular culture. It is reflected in our culture
today, in ways so terrifying that we have now become disenchanted with

17.  Bacon was an enthusiastic supporter of witch hunts. He was, in fact, attorney
general to King James I while James was trying and killing “witches.”
18.  Merchant, “Violence of Impediments,” 731.
19. Illich, Rivers North of the Future, 69.

disenchantment—the postmodern paradox. It is in response to disenchant-
ment and its terrible sense of loss that we have seen the proliferation of a
whole menu of “spiritual” fads.

With Descartes, each thing in nature became something in-itself, sepa-
rate from the whole, and with this mechanized world, God’s ever constant
will was replaced by a cosmic clockmaker who winds up the universe ac-
cording to natural laws, which can now run while God takes a nap. This
does not immediately supplant God, but it creates the conditions wherein
God can be dispensed with at a later date. And so the ground was prepared
for secular modernity to emerge. That lack of a “second thought” that Weber
referred to as “disenchantment” was set up by Descartes and advanced by
Bacon. Nature is an object, purely for our use. A dead and dissected objectiv-
ity is, at last, the cure for our dangerous subjectivity.


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