Vulnerabilities of Nature and Culture

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Summer 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 1.

Chandra Mukerji
UC San Diego

It seems as though cultural sociologists have been moving away from studying culture and nature. But modernity is changing as the earth changes, and we need to pay attention. It is not a happy subject—the evidence of what moderns have done too often is a reminder of human vulnerability, hubris and stupidity. And it is hard to know how to approach such a complicated subject analytically as a critical cultural sociologist. Given the barriers, I can understand why it might be more satisfying for cultural sociologists to study something else. But I want to make the case for watching modernity at this historical moment as a kind of cultural train wreck in motion that is shaping the earth and weather into new forms, sending shock waves through communities hit by “natural” disasters.

The problem with tackling this material in cultural sociology is that using semiotic approaches alone makes us miss much of the material dynamics of modernity as a form of life in nature. And using STS methods alone to study nature in modernity leaves out much of the social complexity of modernist culture. Of course, this makes it a particularly good subject for cultural sociologists with a material bent, but the work is hard. And the object of study, modernity, is changing rapidly as distrust of modern principles of government and human rationality are creating surveillance regimes with landscapes full of cameras for monitoring and self-monitoring. Both relations of power and nature are in motion, vulnerable to the detritus and innovations alike of industrial and postindustrial society. We need different analytic tools to make sense of this.

Like many others interested in nature and culture, I have focused on modern ways of extracting power from things, but now I am thinking more about weakness and modernity. This is partly because I live in California, and can see the bluffs along the Pacific coast crashing down after the high tides of winter. The railroad that runs along the bluff near me is threatened, and the sea walls proposed by engineers to stabilize the tracks would only serve as weak temporary scaffolding for preserving a modern icon, the train. This chunk of landscape with its housing developments behind it is vulnerable to the rising seas, just as the seas are vulnerable to the carbon emissions of California’s cars driving to and from the houses. Weakness is everywhere, and both the bluffs and local politicians are in motion. It is in this context that I have been reading sociology of vulnerability. If you know this literature, skip the next paragraphs. If you don’t, most of their books are about to come out or come out in English, so look for them.

Antoine Hennion is a well-known French sociologist of music who has recently done cultural analysis of immigrant communities, writing about the vulnerability of immigrants and the camps they built near Calais. Already on the run from danger, the immigrants built a temporary community with amenities they needed and created a landscape of hope and desperation. The camp was not entirely safe, but when it was destroyed by the French government, it only added to the vulnerability of the inhabitants as they were exposed to weather — a form of vulnerability modern rules of government required officials to address. This seems a pattern repeating in many places. 

Fernando Domínguez-Rubio, less eminent but just as brilliant, has analyzed the vulnerability of things. He studied MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the problems of conservation posed by the deterioration of the defining pieces of modernity. The paintings, sculptures and digital pieces only seem like stable objects because of museum infrastructures of storage and repair. The latter keep art eternal to sustain modern ideas of unassailable human genius. The museum helps stabilize modernity as a culture by covering its vulnerability.

Benjamin Sims and Christopher Henke, working from the STS tradition, have created a compelling and deceptively modest approach to infrastructure repair, looking at the vulnerability of the systems meant to keep modernity working. They have described a range of broken infrastructures from heating systems to roads and surveillance systems, describing the efforts to make these infrastructure work either by restoration of the system or amelioration of the problem. In either case, technical repair becomes cultural repair, too, addressing a weakness in the cultural fabric revealed in things.

All of this is amazing work, but only a start.

This analytic approach helps reveal the cultural and technical stakes for moderns as they respond to the shifting face of nature. Jakarta, for example, is sinking. So, is Mexico City. But Jakarta is now dangerously prone to flooding, so the problem has led to a proposal to build a new capital city. The ground under Jakarta has been sinking as groundwater has been pumped by the residents, changing the physical shape of the land. The point is to have fresh water, but the lower the city sinks, the more dangerous the floods are, leaving more people vulnerable to drowning and water-borne illnesses. The new capital, like Brasilia before it, would allow the regime to create a new landscape of power. The government would, in modernist terms, take control of land on higher ground, and make it a tribute to those who had the foresight and skill to build it. It would be a rational system for solving a modern problem, but it would still be a monument to the vulnerability of modern cities, and particularly so, if Jakarta was abandoned by the government, and left to the most vulnerable people who would still be in need of water. Human vulnerability— the need for food and water— remains the heart of the problem. But it is modern culture that is collapsing, and it is not clear what can and cannot be repaired.

Sociologists routinely study social vulnerability, but not this kind of cultural vulnerability. We know how to talk about the deteriorating neighborhoods of cities based on race and class, but we also need vocabularies for explaining the vulnerability in modernity with a clearer sense of how modernity depends on the earth, but still strains its capacity for sustaining human life. This is work for cultural sociologists that is not only interesting, but also necessary.