A Rebours

For some people, “Nature” means everything there is; others employ the term to denote only what they imagine to be statistically common. A given human behaviour, for example, might therefore be conceived of as either “natural”, on the grounds that lots of people do it, or as “unnatural”, on the grounds that not enough people do it. It all depends on how many people are considered to be enough. For the first group, minorities are also part of Nature; for the second, only a majority is.

A third group ignores the numbers and concentrates on whether the inclination to said human behaviour is something we are born with (which is what the word actually means), imagining that whatever they wish to reprehend has been inculcated instead by various political bugbears. This is bad science but otherwise self-consistent.

To define human nature in terms of absolutely all acts of all human beings may be theoretically sound, but it is not useful. The whole point of believing in the natural is to identify things that are not natural, and the whole point of doing the latter is to increase one’s self-esteem by condemning them.

Consequently a fourth group, overlapping on the third, identifies Nature instead with their own preferences, or the subset of “everything that is” that makes them happy. When this group says that the behaviour is “unnatural”, therefore, they mean primarily that it subjectively disgusts them, or otherwise offends their values. Moreover, whenever someone else suggests that behaviour not to their taste is in fact “natural” to the species, they assume that this someone is else is only saying that because he wants to do it himself. What other reason could there be?

At the same time such people typically assume that the “natural” equals the “good”. This means that whatever they themselves enjoy doing must be right and whatever offends or “squicks” them must be wrong. In this way they make their own personal tastes – which they consider “natural” gratifications – into the measure of all things. Having argued backwards to “human nature” from their own likes and revulsions, they then proceed to enforce “the natural”, although one might be forgiven for thinking that this is a contradiction; surely the natural ought to come naturally, without coercion?

The fin-du-siècle Decadent is responding primarily to this fourth group and its appropriation of the term Nature to serve their conventional tastes; he seeks to épater la bourgeoisie by declaring himself to be “Against Nature”. Yet he has failed to rebel sufficiently, because he has in fact bought into the bourgeois assumption that Nature is a narrower category than “everything that is”. Had he not done so, he might have reflected that he himself is also a part of Nature, and so, therefore, is whatever he chooses to do, even when this is to become a perverse and eremitical aesthete. The Decadent is therefore not really Against Nature, only against what the bourgeois consider to be “the natural”, namely themselves.

An alternative kind of rebellion against Nature is possible, if we perceive that there is no particular reason why the Natural – in the sense of the statistically prevailing or in the sense of the innate as opposed to the acquired – should be the Good, whether in sexual practices or in anything else.

This of course presupposes a standard of goodness other than what is natural, a standard of value that is entirely outside the natural world. A transcendental religion does that job; but then it gets into deep trouble the moment it announces that the natural world was created by its transcendental standard of value. It attempts to square the circle by claiming that the parts of the natural world that do not conform to the transcendental goodness have been messed with – by ourselves, by a transcendental force of badness or by both in concert. But this leads to inconsistent cherry-picking au Aquinas, who for example claimed that homosexuality was wicked because it was unnatural, that is, because animals didn’t do it, while at the same time claiming that intercourse a tergo was wicked because it was what animals did.

We might, however, endeavour to do our own cherry-picking, based on a standard of goodness that we erect by fiat, in the existentialist manner, simply because we can and we choose to. In this case we should never declare that something is good, or for that matter bad, merely because it is natural, but rather attempt to discover what the natural actually is, and then pass judgment on it accordingly.

Alternatively, we might think about human nature in terms of the main behaviour modules and modules that are more rarely triggered. Then “human nature” will mean the former. The duality of operating system and third-party applications may be a useful analogy. Well, then, some third-party apps are badly-written, and all operating systems have their disabilities.

Posted on March 26, 2009 at 17:00 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: AGAINST NATURE, Preface

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