On Nature and Natural Law

Note 3: Rousseau and Nature. 1/22/99

Pinning down Jean Jacques Rousseau's perception of man's relationship to nature, especially if the attempt is made through Derrida's account of it in Of Grammatology, is the same as trying to skate on very thin ice across the Gulf of Mexico in August. Can't be done. One reason is that Derrida, rather than writing a critique of Rousseau's argument, which might be expected from someone dedicated to deconstructing Western metaphysics, instead engages in a long digression in which he explores the question of whether the "Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men" was written before or after the "Essay on the Origin of Languages." Derrida's project seems to be consumed by an effort to identify which of these works is the supplement of the other. One or both has a gap, a lack, an aporia in it which can only be filled by the supplementarity of the other. One can get truly and profoundly lost in the forest of trees named supplement in Derrida's discourse, as I have done from day to day and page to page, trying to find my way out of the towering oaks and pines and cypresses that thrust themselves out of the swamp of Derrida's deferrals. While I might reasonably hesitate to use this as an arche-example of everything that frustrates me in trying to read Derrida, I can think of no better place to object to the fact that Derrida ignores a cluster of problems inherent in Rousseau's perception of man-in-nature while he dances around an issue so much like a chicken around an egg that I can't help but wonder what he's thinking about. If Rousseau's view of (wo)man and the development of her/his use of language were even close to being valid, I could accept Derrida's attempt to (re)habilitate JJ's discourse. The problem I have with both of them is that neither one seems to have a clue about the nature of (wo)man in a state of nature. Neither one seems to know much of anything about nature. Is it possible that Europeans have been urban-dwellers for so long that they, collectively and as a race, have forgotten what being-in-nature means? If only it were that benign. What is more to the point and more consistent with logocentric fact is that Europeans have been at war with nature for so long that there is no way they can see the forest, not "for the trees" that define it, but because they have cut all the trees down to build houses so they won't have to live in the forest where they are reminded of the fact they have no power to control it.

A completely off-the-wall example of what I mean here can be cited from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist theorist who was imprisoned by the fascist regime of Mussolini in the 1930's in Italy: "one can provide a quantitative measurement of the difference between past and present, since one can measure the extent to which man dominates nature and change" (360). Only a European could make such a statement. Gramsci has no intention here of criticizing (wo)man's destruction of nature; rather, he has reduced that process to a method for measuring, quantifying, the difference between then and now. As if a calendar isn't somehow up to the task, one can go out and take note of the fact that today a forest that once stretched from here to there has been obliterated from the face of the earth. Yesterday a forest--today a barren wasteland, a shopping mall, a zoo in which to house the endangered animals that used to live in the forest that was obliterated to build the zoo to house the animals that no longer have a habitat in which to live. And why was any of this done? So Europeans, who have apparently never heard the concept "calendar," can quantify the difference between past and present. The difference is easier than that: yesterday life; today death. One of Gramsci's ideological heirs ought to start building zoos for people--well, no, never mind that errant thought, since they always already do that--build zoos for people and call them cemeteries, mass graves, in the service of riding the world of expendable population in the hallowed name of genocide. In Bosnia-Kosovo they call it "ethnic cleansing." Gramsci could use that as another way of quantifying the difference between past and present: it used to be holocaust, now it's cleansing.

What does any of this have to do with Derrida's refusal (deferral?) to call Rousseau's concept of (wo)man's relationship with nature into question? Rousseau grounds his perception of language, its origin, and its human use (holocaust/cleansing) on his fabrication of how language, from the very beginning of its use, constitutes identity and self-perception. Who you are, how you perceive yourself, determines what you say, what you are able to say, what you have been self-empowered to say. Rousseau makes note of the fact that (wo)man's first use of language grew out of need and occurred ages ago when she/he was a savage in the forest of all lost time:

"The first language of mankind, the most universal and vivid, in a word the only language man needed . . . was the simple cry of nature. But as this was excited only by a sort of instinct on urgent occasions, to implore assistance in case of danger, or relief in case of suffering, it could be of little use in the ordinary course of life, in which more moderate feelings prevail."

The "simple cry of nature" is such an appealing thought. One can take comfort in the fact, I suppose, that something like a Derridian digression has its origin in a simple plea for "assistance in case of danger" (to be used perhaps when one sees "the dangerous supplement" that lurks, one can't help but imagine, in this or some other context, stalking around in the underbrush near the waterhole where we gather to slake our thirst for knowledge after sharpening its fangs and claws on the soft underbellies of the less vigilant seekers who came before us), or yet again, after we have been driven completely mad by the pain of our suffering as it slowly dawns on us that no one is coming to assist us because Rousseau has given us over to an absolutely solitary existence. Savage (wo)man had no other need for language than this occasional outcry because

"in this primitive state, men had neither houses, nor huts, nor any kind of property whatever; every one lived where he could, seldom for more than a single night; the sexes united without design, as accident, opportunity or inclination brought them together, nor had they any great need of words to communicate their designs to each other; and they parted with the same indifference."

Rousseau rightly acknowledges at the beginning of his Discourse the fact that he mostly made up this description of savage people, due to the paucity of factual accounts of what it might have actually been like to live before the development of society and language, which he always couples as twin necessities before either one can exist, and so, I suppose, he can be forgiven for the absurdity of his vision. In 1754, Europeans had little, if any, knowledge of animal behavior and Rousseau probably none at all of any personal kind, since he would have had to leave the soft confines of his salon circuit to find anything at all like a wild animal. I can't help but believe that he simply picked the wrong kind of animal on which to base his description. In another place he says that savage (wo)man was

"Solitary, indolent, and perpetually accompanied by danger, the savage cannot but be fond of sleep; his sleep too must be light, like that of the animals, which think but little and may be said to slumber all the time they do not think."

Being "fond of sleep" is a curious notion to interject so suddenly into this discourse and it does appear almost by magic in the course of his musings. Sleep? Where did that idea originate? That savages sleep when they do not think which is most of the time because they have no language and without language how precisely did they, or animals for that matter, think at all? Why not be honest here and simply admit that what Rousseau is really thinking about is not sleep at all but rather hibernation. Just before this idea suddenly appears, Rousseau remarks that animals "learned" to be afraid of savages:

"Set a bear, or a wolf, against a robust, agile, and resolute savage, as they all are, armed with stones and a good cudgel, and you will see that the danger will be at least on both sides, and that, after a few trials of this kind, wild beasts, which are not fond of attacking each other, will not be at all ready to attack man, whom they will have found to be as wild and ferocious as themselves."

Bears hibernate. They are also solitary creatures who never sleep in the same place and cohabit with females only occasionally (every two or three years when the she-bear has finished raising her previous set of cubs) and one would imagine that they separate with the same kind of indifference with which they (co)mingle and don't spend a great deal of time talking it over. Indifference isn't exactly appropriate usage when applied to bears either, since the male is chosen by the female when they mate by virtue of his apparent qualities of strength, endurance, intelligence, and so on.

Rousseau's description, then, of savage (wo)man, by the implications of juxtaposition at least, seems as likely to have been modeled after bears as it was after any other kind of animal. He probably saw a bear in a traveling eighteenth century circus and was struck by the absurd similarity between the upright walking, dancing bear and the human handlers who dominated his "wild and ferocious" presence and will on the civilized streets of the city. The problem, of course, with Rousseau's vision is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with any conceivable circumstance of human history. (Wo)man was never, except in salon society perhaps, a solitary, indolent, thoughtless, sleep-prone, mute and silent, savage beast who treated everyone else around him/her with utter and absolute indifference. Rousseau's "simple cry of nature," in a different context, may actually contain a kernel of truth in terms of how protohumans developed the ability and habit of speech. Herd animals, when they settle into the necessary exposure of the waterhole, always post a sentinel to watch the surrounding grassland for signs of danger in the form or body of feline predators. If the watcher sees anything threatening he/she warns the others by voicing sounds of alarm. The drinkers run like hell to escape the lions, panthers, etc. that mean to take their lives.

(Wo)man, who is closer to some primates than she/he is to any other kind of animal, both genetically and behaviorally, also traveled in complex social groups perfectly capable, as antelope are, of posting watchers at the waterhole who verbally warmed their fellows if danger approached. After they ran like hell to escape, and a point both Rousseau and Derrida fail to comprehend or imagine, the protohumans probably regrouped and told each other stories about how brave and noble they had been in the face of their recent and collective brush with death at the waterhole. Story-telling is as old as human history. Telling stories, even if they contain nothing more than a few words about how close you came to death that very morning on the savannahs of Africa, is surely the source and origin of language use and an activity that began among the upright walking population well before anything like homo sapiens actually made their appearance in the world. Other primates talk to each other now and presumably have been doing so since the dawn of time. Crows have elaborate speech patterns and current research even indicates that ones living west of the Mississippi share a dialect of crow-speech that differs significantly from the one that is used east of the river.

There is nothing new here; no news here at all. Native Americans have known the speech of animals for thousands of years. How is it possible that we know something that Europeans are only now just beginning to discover? Because we listen. Because we recognize the fact that (wo)man is part of nature, that people have no where else to live but in nature, that the only escape there is from nature is called death. When Rousseau says that "Speech distinguishes man among the animals," a statement Derrida identifies as the first sentence in JJ's Essay on the Origin of Languages, he not only displays his ignorance of nature but also falls headlong into the trap of logocentric desire, demonstrates that he is already trapped by the desire to prove that the Logos actually exists, that it is the source and reason for (wo)man's right and duty to establish her/himself as the dominant master over all other lesser forms and signs of life in the universe. Derrida characterizes this statement in the following terms:

"Speech is also 'the first social institution.' It is therefore not natural. It is natural to man, it belongs to his nature, to his essence, which is not, unlike that of animals, natural." (230)

I can think of only one way to differentiate (wo)man's nature and essence from that of other animals, where the most important given fact of the description insists that animals are natural and (wo)man is not, that (wo)man is unnatural because her/his essence and nature are not natural. If speech is social, and no one denies that it is, and if speech only emerged after (wo)man entered social relations with other human beings, then speech is not natural because Eurocentric discourse has always already differentiated nature from culture. Social activity, speech included, cannot by definition be natural because it occurs, has its origin, not in nature but in society. The problem, however, with this rigid dialectical binary opposition, nature/culture, is that no evidence whatsoever can be cited to support the notion that human beings ever did exist in a context of solitary nomadism and indolence wherein they never talked to each other by virtue of Rousseau's concept of radical dispersal ("savage man, living dispersed among other animals, and finding himself betimes in a situation to measure his strength with theirs, soon comes to compare himself with them"). And so too, of course, do Rousseau and Derrida come to compare savage (wo)man to Europeans and both find them in a pure state of nature to be solitary, nomadic, indolent, indifferent brutes who have no capacity to think (they are "fond of sleep") and therefore no capacity or need to talk or use language at all. That model, even if applied to the protohuman races (robustus, habilis, etc.) has no validity whatsoever. The question, then, is when in time did (wo)man live in a state that can be characterized as prior to socialization. The answer is never and the point is that the distinction nature/culture when applied to the development of human speech is meaningless and probably absurd.

There is a way out of this box, however, and both Rousseau and Derrida take advantage of it:

"it is clear from the Holy Scriptures that the first man, having received his understanding and commandments immediately from God, was not himself in such a state [of pure nature]"

And following that:

"Religion commands us to believe that, God Himself having taken men out of a state of nature immediately after the creation, they are unequal only because it is His will they should be so: but it does not forbid us to form conjectures based solely on the nature of man, and the beings around him, concerning what might have become of the human race, if it had been left to itself."

This appeal to the Logos, to the Myth of Eden specifically, since that is precisely where God put (wo)man when he removed her/him from nature immediately after the creation, solves any number of problems with Rousseau's account of the origin of languages. The gap, the lack, the aporia in Rousseau's account, the absurdity of the notion that (wo)man was a solitary nomadic creature who never had the need to speak, is filled, erased, covered up, hidden, elided, obscured, removed, obliterated, consumed, and ignored by the insertion of the Logos itself, by the story of all stories, by the ideology of all ideologies, by the falsity of all false consciousness, by the Myth of (wo)man's temporary rescue from nature and her/his insertion into perfectibility and utopian bliss in the Garden of man's innocence where, after Eve's creation from Adam's rib, God also gave them language.

Talk about your "dangerous supplement;" but oddly enough, or not, Derrida never mentions the fact that Rousseau bolsters his bizarre description of savages, referring as he (Rousseau) does occasionally to native American tribal people as examples of what "savage" really means, by falling back into the very pit that always already traps every European, even those who claim to be about the business of (de)constructing it, when he/she walks along the garden path that privileges white over color. Logos uber alles! is one not very pleasant way of putting it.

One final thought, really more a promise of future comment, concerns the statement above that men are unequal because God so wills that they be so. I'm going to look at that nation in the context of Geoffrey Chaucer's Parson's Tale because he says it so well and so completely 350 years before Rousseau got around to repeating it and one ought to maintain some semblance of historical perspective when dealing with a subject as complex as the instantaneous creation of hierarchy among all living beings in the universe by a single and all-encompassing appeal to religious mythology that only a small fraction of the earth's population ever believed or supported except by violent coercion more terrifying and deadly than any of the fangs and claws of nature's "wild and ferocious" beasts. Native Americans have always referred to them as brothers, a courtesy we usually deny to the Europeans who have so recently found their tortured way among and against us.

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