On Nature and Natural Law
Introduction: Lawn Care, Snap.com, and Eurocentric Paradigms of Genocide. 5/10/99
When I first conceived the idea of writing a series of notes exploring the relationship between Eurocentric philosophical discourse and native American perceptions of reality, I was reasonably certain that a distinction between nature and natural law and society and social law could be used to constitute a fundamental ground of difference between one kind of European thinking and another. The dialectic between nature and society is so pervasive in Eurocentric discourse that I simply assumed an actual distinction could be drawn between them that would help organize my thinking about the larger issues involved in the project, on the one hand, and would provide a useful tool in classifying different approaches to basic problems, on the other. Much to my surprise, however, I discovered that Eurocentric perceptions of nature and society are so fuzzy around the edges that it is virtually impossible to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.
The problem is relatively simple it seems. Many logocentric thinkers, which includes virtually every European philosopher who has ever uttered a word about anything, perceives most categories of law as having been derived, at some point in time or another, from the Mind of God. Since God created the universe and everything that exists in it, and arranged all that matters in various systems of hierarchical classification, any law that can be articulated must come from God at some point or another. Hence, even the most obvious kinds of social law, say crossing the street in the middle of the block instead of at the controlled intersection at the corner (Jay-walking, as it were), if one simply tries hard enough, can be traced back to a primal interest of the Godhead in preserving a natural order in human society. The problem with this view, of course, is that jay-walking does not have anything about it that points to an immutable dispensation against committing it as a crime against nature, or against society, either, for that matter. The seriousness of the crime simply does not rise to a level where a distinction between natural and social makes any difference to anyone but the obsessive/compulsive idiot who came up with the restriction in the first place. For the vast majority of human beings--who cares if someone walks across the street in the middle of the block?
Be that as it may, the point I want to make is that Eurocentric discourse makes a clear and permanent distinction between nature and society as such but does not seem able to extend that basic difference to include matters that touch on the issue of difference between natural and social law. This distinction is crucial in coming to terms with a contrast between Eurocentric thinking and thinkers and native American perceptions of reality because native American culture, unlike its logocentric counterpart, exists in a state of close and open proximity to natural reality which produces a blurring of the line between what Europeans refer to when they talk about nature as opposed to society and what native Americans always mean when they do the same thing. A society, always already defined as primitive by Europeans, which creates its identity in close and open proximity to the real natural world of mountain, river, tree, and lake, for instance, as opposed to one that only knows the inside of man-made structures which are meant to wall the individual away from natural forces, produces a social structure and coda of social laws that are based on, and determined by, the processes of natural force that define and limit the environment in which that social structure exists and thrives. A distinction, therefore, between natural and social law in native American culture and discourse is essentially meaningless because one is derived from the other without the filtering effects of the walls Europeans employ to keep them rigidly divided and separated.
One way of thinking about the difference is to compare the dwelling of a member of the Cheyenne nation with that of a European. In pre-Columbian times, the native American lived in the shelter of a movable house constructed of animal skins and unfinished pieces of trees. The wall between the person and the natural world was simply an extension of that natural environment converted from its living reality (the skin of the bison; the trunk of the tree), which enveloped the individual in the living spirit of both without ever actually removing him from either. This is true because the spirit of the animal, of the tree, does not depart the pieces of its former existence until they have been totally obliterated from the heart of the mother that gives them form and substance. A European house, on the other hand, is a wall of brick and stone and mortar, all dead things, which are bound together in a way that totally excludes the forces of nature that gave them shape and structure and form in the first place. Europeans fashion dead places in which to live. Put another way: Europeans build monuments to posterity in which to die; native Americans accept an environment in which to live; one is referred to as private property, the other is called the real natural world.
The quest for the perfect lawn in American suburbia provides a valuable symbol for the point I am making here. Consider the obsession suburban Americans have developed over the issue of basic lawn care. If the community in which you live has not already done so for you, by plotting out a series of concrete slabs that define the space your lawn is supposed to occupy, you do it for yourself by mapping out this space as opposed to that one. You then buy the necessary top-soil from a nursery, since most places in America do not have much of that irrelevant commodity left for use anymore, along with the necessary high-nitrogen fertilizer to insure that your grass achieves the required shade of healthy green. The seed itself comes in small-, medium-, and large-sized bags depending on the number of square feet you intend to convert into lawn. There are many varieties of grass seed from which you can choose. You can also purchase pre-grown sod by the truck load in most areas of the country these days where all you need to do is put it out on the bare ground, water it a little if it doesn't rain, and wait for the roots to take hold. In virtually no time at all anyone can have a perfectly flat, smooth, geometrically determined plot of grass in front of his/her perfectly efficient home.
Of course, nothing is ever that easy, that simplistic. Where grass is concerned, where the actual facts of lawn care as such come home to roost, is in the sudden and unrelenting appearance of weeds in the perfect stretch of ideal lawn you are attempting to create. Weeds take on the role of spoiler in every effort anyone has ever made to create and maintain the perfect lawn. They always appear. They always spoil the effect of perfection the grass-grower harbors deep in the dark interior of his/her Eurocentric soul. The idea of the perfectly managed lawn is a metaphor, a symbol for the notion of the perfect garden that was denied to (wo)mankind because he/she could not obey the only commandment God put down as a qualification for eternal life in a place where no work was required for subsistence. To say that Lawn equals Eden is simply the same as acknowledging the fact that every Eurocentric person in America desires to possess that which they believe God denied to them because they could not resist the temptation of committing an original sin. It is, of course, the weed that gives the proper edge to the analogy.
A weed is anything that cannot be identified as grass in the context of the perfect lawn. Most weeds are plants that grow naturally on the plains, in river valleys between mountains, in forest meadows--in short, weeds are plants that grow naturally anywhere that suburbanites have not managed yet to devolve or convert into perfect gardens and lawns in the Western hemisphere. Weeds are ugly, misshapen creatures, as opposed to the perfectly ordered varieties of grass that were invented and bred by the agricultural extension services of land-grant universities in every corner of America, which intrude on the perfect garden by thrusting their unsightly heads through the perfectly ordered universe of the contemporary culture of the suburbanites' lawn. Weeds are, of course, when compared to grass, the plant world's version of the other. When weeds appear, the unwary suburbanite, who may not have fully anticipated the inevitable affront that raw and savage nature meant to bring to his/her life, makes the hurried and harried journey to the local plant and garden center, conveniently located in a 17-acre plot of concrete and asphalt, to buy the first of many gallons of Ortho weed-killer he/she will need and use to control the appearance of the merely natural in the artificially conceived and planted garden that constitutes Eurocentric perceptions of a human paradise lost but then chemically regained. He/she then embarks on the endless, but necessary, task of eradicating the ugly, brutal, savage invasion of the other that has ruined his/her perfect garden of land-grant created and regulated grass.
The point here is that a normal, expected Eurocentric response to the other always already includes the mapping out of a desirable territory, which may or may not be inhabited by the other prior to its discovery, prior to its becoming desirable, which is then appropriated for the sake of improvement from a natural state (including weeds) to a social state (excluding weeds) by whatever means are necessary to achieve the desired result of fabricating the perfectly ordered and maintained garden. This response to difference, to the other, in Eurocentric discourse and life is so ingrained, so deeply embedded, in the consciousness of people who embrace it that it surfaces without question, without ambiguity, without any doubt surrounding its desirability as social practice, in television commercials meant to sell weed-killers to weekend suburban gardeners. The message is: if it is not grass, if it is not exactly like us, if it is other than what we desire, kill it.
One can always argue, of course, that the methods employed by a major chemical company to sell its products cannot be used to exemplify the way society as a whole relates to difference, to the other, in normal contexts of social exchange. To argue that the widespread use of weed-killers in suburbia to maintain perfect lawns is the same as incarcerating native Americans in concentration camps (called Reservations) for hundreds of years, simply because they are not the same as Europeans, are, in fact, the weeds in the perfect lawn of every white American's dream of a perfect Eden, is surely an act of ill-logic, if not outright absurdity, that deserves not a second thought on the part of any reasonable person. Maybe a hundred or two hundred years ago Europeans hated native Americans enough to murder them as viciously as possible but that kind of thinking does not exist now-a-days at all. Besides, as everyone knows and can see for themselves, native Americans choose to be on those Reservations--none of them are incarcerated there against their will. There are no fences, no walls, no razor-wire, keeping them in those places where they freely choose to live.
The most insidious forms of racial prejudice are the kinds that are the most common, the ones that spring to mind without effort, the ones that are expressed thoughtlessly, the ones that seem only natural because they exist at the deepest levels of cultural practice and societal experience. Several weeks ago I submitted the URL for a Mayan web-site I maintain to NBC's search-engine "snap.com." I wrote a brief description of the site and always include meta tags ("title," "keywords," and "description") because I believe that I am the best qualified person to characterize the work I publish on the Internet. The "editorial team" at snap.com, however, chose to ignore the efforts I always make to identify the subject/object of my discourse and wrote a description of the web-page which must have satisfied some unstated intention, desire, or agenda of their own. Needless to say, what they wrote as a description of the web-site is radically different from anything I would have said myself about its contents and is nothing at all like the statement I did make when I submitted the URL for consideration of inclusion on their search-engine. One must remember, of course, that people who use the services of snap.com to find material on the Internet are guided by the descriptions they read of the web-site's content. One could even say that the description published by the search-engine is the basis for a first impression of what the seeker will subsequently find for him/herself on the page and may even fabricate a predisposition toward the content that can never be completely eradicated from the reader's consciousness by whatever evidence to the contrary the person discovers on the web-site itself.
What follows, then, is a verbatim transcription of two sequential search-engine entries, the first of which directly precedes the one that represents my own web-site:
• People & Society: Culture & Heritage: Mayan
Maya Astronomy Page, The
This detailed study of the history, culture and science of the ancient civilization examines their calendar, writing, mathematics and astronomy.
Found at: http://www.astro.uva.nl/michielb/maya/astro.html
• Education: Reference: Calendars: Cultural & Historical: Mayan
A Mayan Farmers Almanac? Yep, right here and other quirky reference materials to bring some lightness to and shed some light on the intriguing and complex calendar of the Maya.
Found at: http://personal.msy.bellsouth.net/msy/b/m/bmartin3/
I am almost speechless with awe at the ability the "editorial team" at snap.com has displayed here for denigrating the other. (I am pleased to report that the people at snap.com changed the description of the website to something more appropriate after I objected to their original characterization. It was done immediately and well by the staff of the "editorial team" which reinforces my conviction that no one there did anything intentionally racist. That fact, however, does not change my belief that most white Americans are prone to express racist attitudes toward the other thoughtlessly.) That (dis)paragement exists on two levels simultaneously. On the one hand, since I am native American and make no effort to conceal that fact from anyone, and assume that the "editorial team" at snap.com knows that about me, I have to question the inference created here by juxtaposition that the first web-site is seriously engaged in evaluating (from the University of Amsterdam no less) the history and culture of Mayan civilization, while all I have to offer is some "quirky reference materials" about some "Farmers (sic) Almanac." "Yep?" Well shit, let's all get down to the level this manure deserves and spread a little folksy and farmerish bull about some "personal" views of native American cultural imperatives this site supports.
The "quirky" material on the web-page is composed of astronomical data gathered from a planetarium star-map computer program that enables one to recreate and visualize the sky exactly as it appeared to observers at Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico during the pre-Columbian epoch of Mayan civilization when they created the Dresden Codex Eclipse and Venus tables. One of the "Farmer's Almanacs" referred to here depicts and plots a retrograde motion of Mars through the constellation of Gemini on the calendrical day-names the Mayas who wrote it listed in that "almanac" or table of celestial motion.
This "editorial" view of Mayan achievement (that it is "quirky") constitutes the other side of the denigration I have referred to above. This second level is all the more egregious, of course, because it diminishes native American cultural achievements, than is the one that prompts my objections to the way they have characterized my own efforts in comprehending how Mayan astronomers perceived the sky. I can live with snap.com's racist attitudes toward native Americans because it is only as much as I expect from Eurocentric "editorial teams." What I will not live with is the denigration of Mayan cultural achievements at a time in history when the Guatemalan government, with help from the CIA, has been directly responsible for the mass murder of as many as 250,000 native Mayas over the past ten or twenty years. I feel one must draw a line against Eurocentric genocide somewhere.
One question this raises is whether or not the people at snap.com are deliberately racist. My sense is that they are simply products, commodities, as it were, of the civilization in which they live. Their relative value depends on who it is that benefits from their ignorance and stupidity in not recognizing the racist content of their own words. People who are actively involved in annihilating the Mayan people in Guatemala probably look upon the "editorial team" at NBC and snap.com as brothers in the cause of manufacturing a perfectly homogenous Eurocentric "lawn." Effective weed-killers, after all, are not that easy to come "buy." NBC runs the Ortho commercial, of course. On the other hand, and for my part, the editors of snap.com have no value whatsoever. They are as collectively worthless as anything I can think of or imagine. Ballast, not cargo, chained in the hold of the boat back where they came from is one way of putting it. And, for my part, the sooner they are on the boat, the better.
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