Saturday, 26 November 2011

Nature’s rhetoric?

Watching the latest BBC nature documentary ‘Frozen Planet’ made me think about language and nature. We tend to think of all that is not human-made as ‘natural’, i.e. predating our existence and/or being outside of our remit: “existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind” (OD 2011). However, when we talk about nature we relate to it through language, that is, we interpret all that is ‘natural’ through the lens of humankind. The question is: if we look at nature in human terms, can it still be natural?

Science, that is, the study of nature, is generally understood as: “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment” (OD 2011), and as it is based on ‘observation and experiment’, we considered it to be objective: “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts” (OD 2011). However, as Ruth Bleier argues in “Science and Gender”: “no science or discipline can peel off layers of culture and learning and find an untouched core of biological nature” (Eisenstein 1988, 90), meaning, whichever aspect of life we look at and however objectively we try to look at it, we cannot help but look at it from a specifically human perspective.

So what does this mean for nature, or more precisely, what does this mean for nature documentaries? As nature is unable to represent itself and therefore inevitably a reflection of the point of view of humanity, it makes the use of the term ‘natural’ problematic to say the least.

Let me pick out an example from Episode 4* of ‘Frozen Planet’ to illustrate my point: the sexuality of Caribou. In the opening sequence the viewer is introduced to a herd of Caribou crossing the ice. However, as the narrative soon explains, we are not encountering the herd as a whole but, in the context of their sexual interactions, are viewing individual Caribou as specifically male and female: “the frisky males would be well advised to keep at least one eye on the road, as the mating season begins” (BBC 2011, 25.33-25.41) and “a cow is being closely guarded by a mature bull with his much larger antlers” (25.56-26.02) here sets the scene for the events about to follow.

The question is: as nature is always already re-presented from our specifically human point of view, can the ‘natural facts' portrayed be truly ‘natural’ or will these ‘facts’ contain certain value judgements imposed by humanity? For example, the male is depicted as active and “full of energy” as the term ‘frisky’ indicates (OD 2011), the female, however, appears from a much more passive point of view: being ‘guarded’, or more precisely, ‘closely guarded’, by a bull: “watch[ed] over in order to protect or control”,  and/or “to prevent them from escaping” (OD 2011). As a consequence he linguistically holds all the agency.

The female is not consistently passive, however, and makes for an active escape. But whilst doing so she is not given any more linguistic agency and her actions only understood in relation to the male, that is, his sexuality: “the cow is playing hard to get” (26.18-26.20), the narrative explains. At this point, the viewer might sincerely wonder, are we still watching a ‘natural’ encounter between female and male? In short, do female Caribou really ‘play hard to get’, i.e. “deliberately adopt an aloof or uninterested attitude, typically in order to make oneself more attractive or interesting” (OD 2011), such as women are frequently accused of doing in our human sexual interplay? Or are we ‘simply’ encountering a particular point of view of female sexuality? 

The tale has an uncannily familiar ending: “the exhausted bull guards his prize but he’ll need to recover before he’s able to make the most of his victory” (28.28-28.36). And as he relishes his trophy, we are not left with the image of female and male jointly ensuring the survival of the species but with the dominant male submitting the defeated female. The question is: is the sexuality of Caribou ‘naturally’ about dominance and submission? Or is this ‘simply’ how we culturally need it to be? As Marilyn French argues: “[m]ales are not dominant by nature, or they would always be dominant [...] In one sense, patriarchy is an attempt to make male dominance a ‘natural’ fact” (Eisenstein 1988, 89).

What I am trying to say is this: if we cannot help but look at nature through our human lens, can it not only ever be as ‘natural’ as we allow it to be? As our society has historically privileged the male sex over the female, are we not bound to favour the male point of view beyond, which includes the male point of view of ‘natural’ sexuality? In short, until we have a more balanced understanding of our own humanity, (how) can we be objective with regard to nature? Will nature not only serve as a justification for our male/female dichotomy? Will nature not in itself become mere rhetoric?


Eisenstein, Zillah R. 1988. The Female Body and the Law. Berkeley: University of California Press.

*Narrative taken from live programme.

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