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Reconfiguring Nature, by Alison Caddick

Vale Geoff Sharp, 5 May 1926–7 June 2015

A core concern in Geoff Sharp’s work, and major contribution to understanding contemporary life and society, was his notion of the reconfiguration of the natural through the combined actions of the market and techno-science. For Geoff, these were complementary processes but distinct nevertheless, each with their inner logics played in and against the engagement of human beings, by their nature largely unaware of their own cultural formation. If we live in an increasingly ‘abstract’ world, as Geoff would have said, it is not that human beings haven’t always been immersed in culture, indeed they are constituted through it, but that we can trace a development towards a particular kind of culture today that cuts us off from elements of our natural-cultural being that have been common to humanity, to all cultures, across the ages.

Geoff pointed to a common tendency to reconstitution of the natural across many domains—Anthropocene climate change, post-human biologies, nuclear fission, new communications technologies—and read in those changes a general social principle, trajectory or logic that had a deep common source. From a Marxist background, these are all manifestations of material changes effected through the social relationships of a new form of capitalism, which promote the forms and content of consciousness. From a philosophy of science/studies of technology point of view, new technologies, especially those supercharged by science, open out a new frame, a new horizon within which distinctive paths of development become possible, and even seem inevitable, because the conditions of the frame remain hidden from view. On the one hand, massively expanded commodity production since the Second World War points to new means of production, and of course to consumerism and the commodity fetish. On the other hand, the population is taken up in either outright celebration or, more likely, unknowing pursuit of the new possibilities of technology as an expression of progress, freedom or queering of previously dominant social relationships and cultural values.

Geoff both added to and altered the understanding of these various forces acting in different parts of the complex of contemporary life. Not unlike some other theorists of the post-war period, shaped by his background as a social psychologist and influenced by anthropology, Geoff saw the new depth to which one must take any theory of culture and the person. The materialist view that social consciousness is a function of social practice is basic, but, when understood only as emanating from the productive process (class consciousness, ideology), it takes in neither other formative, relatively independent social relations, for instance family or community connections, nor the inner psychic and embodied elements of identity. Geoff thus was one of the first theorists of the social network, and network relationships of suburban forms of life, well before the personal computer confirmed this tendency. He likewise focused on the body as a site of personal and social formation through the lens of the mental/manual division of labour. Well before poststructuralism’s insights into the modern dualisms and challenge to forms of essentialism, Geoff was locating in social reality the disassembling of the modern subject and the reconfiguration of our relationship to nature, which would come increasingly to include our own as human beings. This ‘reconstituting [of] our mode of interchange with the natural world’, to put it in Geoff’s words, goes to the heart of the cultural question: how nature is understood and dealt with sits at the mythic core of any particular culture, and in dynamic relation to how human groups use nature socially. In more recent years Geoff came to contrast the extractive violence of capitalism of the past 300 years with the re-combinatory power of contemporary techno-science to alter the basic elements of life processes for productive ends. It is not just that our relation to nature is reconfigured but that Nature itself is being remade, as we know in the recomposition of Earth’s biosphere, in the atomic bomb, or in biomedical reconstructions of bodies and bodily processes.

If more orthodox left-wing people disagreed with Geoff’s view on these matters, so too did poststructuralist-informed thinkers and activists, the former because his work breaks out of class analysis, the latter because he searches for a core principle and stands back to view the whole social form. He did not agree with those who see all cultures and cultural practices as merely discourses, however that notion can take on power, social relations and even flesh. Indeed he saw discourse theory itself as a form of ‘ideological’ consciousness, related to the deep processes of change largely hidden from view and so generally not interpreted. Geoff often observed how those discourse approaches typically sit close to the surface of contemporary society and would have us understand our ‘humanity’, now, on their logic, decidedly within quotation marks, as operating within a narrow level or band of social practice and understanding, one that tends to facilitate limited, if new, forms of social diversity and future forms of cyborgism.

For example, it has been argued that we have always been technologically shaped amalgams of the human and the technical, or constructed wholly within social/power categories; we have always been entities radically produced. We are not the assumed human being of conventional sociology, for instance, who merely acquires social characteristics, but rather we are thoroughgoing constructions at the deepest levels of our identity and practice. How, then, can a distinction be made today that contemporary science and technology, and contemporary capitalist forms, represent any kind of significant or fundamental break with earlier forms of the human?

For Geoff, we are indeed socially constituted, and our identities are cut deep-through with what we have learned and what has been suffused in us through the taken-for-granted imperatives of the orders and processes in which we live. But this does not mean that all change through history or cross-cultural diversity is simply the manifestation of differences described as discourses or topographies or ensembles.

Geoff was fond of saying that Marxism was essentialist in its view that oppressive structures and exploitative relations deformed human nature; that this view carried the implicit assumption that human nature was given, and that it would flower with the demise of capitalism. As the New Left emerged in the period of the early Arena, already the practical break-up of many of the assumptions of the modern period, including those of the modern Left, had begun. A major shift in social paradigm, if you like, was under way and many who thought deeply within non-mainstream traditions could not remain satisfied with the old verities, even those of modernity’s alternative standpoints. In other words, the ground underneath people’s feet—beneath the contestatory divisions of Left and Right, and of everyday life—was shifting. Feminism, environmentalism, gay rights, technology critique and anti-nuclear sentiment were all on the march. But with a Marxist-inflected intention to search for a trajectory and for the agents of this change, a social-psychology and anthropological interest in culture, and Geoff’s always remarkable capacity to think outside the received, he began to outline the rise of a distinct social form that might encompass the colourful progression of the new oppositions and the world they were both part of and perhaps, ambiguously, seeking to transform.

By social form, he did not primarily mean the new capitalism, but rather the distinctive kinds of relationships that defined a key grouping within the emerging society. This grouping, by its location in the power centres of the new capitalism, now helped to cast the productive process and its diverse cultural products along more socially abstract lines, following the pattern of their own social formation, or the form of sociality by which knowledge is generated. This centre of power was not the neoliberal nation-state apparatus, then, or the transnational company or global elite, as such, but rather the universities and research institutes, which were the scientific and ideological levers to the new world.

This is the core and the most distinctive of Geoff’s contributions: a sociology of intellectuality, on the one hand, and an anthropology of social forms, on the other. Where intellectual power has typically been thought of as an individual capacity related to insight and intelligence (individual genius), here it is a social process defined by research, writing, the gaining and sharing of knowledge through a relationship to texts, and the storing and accessibility of such according to extended or non-face-to-face relationships over time and space. The same dissolution of particularity in time and in relation to place that scholars and scientists practise is now the sine qua non of contemporary capitalist production and the communications and commodity culture that shapes everyday life. The world is made over according to the social relations and by the techniques of intellectual practice. While discourse theories reveal textual fault lines and power relations to posit an equality of diversity in their stead, in Geoff’s work we see another dimension of analysis entirely open out that focuses attention on different forms of cultural engagement with the natural world, over time and within different community types. On the one hand, discourse approaches remain oblivious to how the abstraction of social and cultural life that governs the new diversity allows greater capture by the commodity. On the other, they may wittingly or unwittingly share a pathway, already implied in practical techno-science, to post-human forms of life and nature.

The implications of these insights are many and complex. Geoff coined the term cultural contradiction to point to how the hopes and values shaped in one form of life and community may still guide the hopes and political programs of people already being unwittingly shaped by emergent structures, in our case today the apparently open horizons of technological change and endless growth. He warned us that there lies the source of much of today’s sense of cultural and political malaise, and the potential loss of the very forms of relationship that would protect our socially constituted humanity.

The overarching picture is one of life and identity shaped not merely by social structures and values, or by discourses and power relations, but by the social relationships that support distinct intellectual practices that may be distinguished by their more or less abstract connection to embodied community and to the natural world. In Geoff’s observation we actually live within and at the intersections of different levels or modes of abstraction. We live in community, and extend ourselves over time and space; we live in our bodies and engage in practices that extend their powers; we live in a complex of relations of more or less depth and condensed meaning; but it is exactly along these dimensions that further work needs to be done and checks and balances need to be designated if we are to remain in balance with the humanity we value and the natural world that gives it meaning and sustenance.

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