What is Nature? Is Nature the biological substratum of human society or the converging practices of local ecology? Is Nature a potent historical agent in its own right or a philosophical blunder of epic proportions? Such questions have a lively history in the Americas. Indeed, while Nature has near mythic form in scholarly and public debates, its content is culled again and again from salient American examples. This course uses such thorny questions as provocations to reflect more precisely on the historical cases and empirical problems that both animate the presences of Nature in the contemporary and account for some of what makes life in the Americas particular.
This course is divided into two sections. Part I provides an overview of how the natural world in the Americas gave shape and momentum to the modern world. We will learn more about the colonial context within which the image of nature first became cogent, about how the embedded agency of germs, cattle, and sugar inflated European conceit, and how some of the earliest capitalistic orderings of the world were built atop the cultivated abundance of (decimated) indigenous communities. Part II of this course outlines the presences of Nature in the analytical practices of ethnographic research, reflecting on the ways Nature has shaped not only what anthropology thought about the world about but also how it has thought that world. In the history of anthropology, we will see how ideas of Nature were put to work explaining human difference from outside of the thicket of (colonial) history. More recently, we will see how ideas of nature’s demise are bringing about a potent convergence of science, ethics, and governance that is rethinking responsibility from within (industrial) history. Following ethnographers into this fraught field, we will learn how local entanglements often dispute any overarching distinction of Nature and Culture as well as how the state and companies invest heavily in maintaining such distinctions at the lively frontiers of power and profit. Studying the social life of pollution, disease, and other manufactured forms of environmental suffering, we will reflect on the contrast between natural difference and the naturalization of inequality.
The overarching premise of this course is quite simple: the unfolding history of life itself across the Americas has indelibly shaped much of what counts as Nature today and much of what makes the Americas a distinct and enduring region.