I ONCE THOUGHT I KNEW what nature writing was: the pretty, sublime stuff minus the parking lot. The mountain majesty and the soaring eagle and the ancient forest without the human footprint, the humans themselves, the mess.
Slowly, fortunately, that definition has fallen flat. Where is the line between what is Nature and what is Human? Do I spend equal times in the parking lot and the forest? Can I really say the parking lot is separate from the forest? What if I end up staying in the parking lot the whole time? What if it has been a long drive and I really have to pee?
The problem is, the Nature/Human split is not a split. It is a dualism. It is false.
I propose messing it up. I propose queering Nature.
As it would happen, I’m queer. What I mean is this: A) I am a man attracted to men. B) Popular culture has told me that men who are attracted to men are unnatural, and so C) if my culture is right, then I am unnatural. But D) I don’t feel unnatural at all. In fact, the love I share with another man is one of the most comfortable, honest, real feelings I have ever felt. And so E) I can’t help but believe that Nature, and the corresponding definition of “natural,” betray reality. From my end of the rainbow, this thing we call Nature is in need of a good queering.
STEP #1: LET GO OF ECOLOGICAL MANDATES.
Not so long ago, I read David Quammen’s essay “The Miracle of the Geese.” In the essay, Quammen says this: “wild geese, not angels, are the images of humanity’s own highest self.” By humanity, I can only assume that he means all humans, collectively, over all of time. “They show us the apogee of our own potential,” Quammen says. “They live by the same principles that we, too often, only espouse. They embody liberty, grace, and devotion, combining those three contradictory virtues with a seamless elegance that leaves us shamed and inspired.” Quammen seems to be on to something. Who could possibly be against liberty, grace, or devotion? But then he starts talking about sex. How geese are monogamous. How a male goose will in fact do better evolutionarily if he is loyal to his mate. “They need one another there, male and female, each its chosen mate, at all times,” he says. “The evolutionary struggle, it turns out, is somewhat more complicated than a singles’ bar.” I’m a little concerned about the evolutionary struggle thing, but I’m still tracking. Life sure is complicated. And then he says this: “I was glad to find an ecological mandate for permanent partnership among animals so estimable as Branta canadensis.”
Boom. There it is. Geese are wild. Geese are pure. They aren’t all mixed up with the problems of civilization and humanity. What we really need is to behave more like geese. If you are a male, then you must find a female. You must partner with that female, provide for that female, fertilize that female, and love that female for the rest of your life. If you are a female, well, you’ll know what to do.
When I first read about Quammen’s geese, I’d been out as bisexual for a year. It was around the second Bush election, and I was writing very serious letters to my conservative grandparents about my sexuality and politics. Now I know why his essay, so considerate, so passionate, so genteel, hit me in the gut. I was not natural.
STEP #2: STOP GENERALIZING.
My instinct is to give Quammen the benefit of the doubt; it was the late ’80s after all. Regardless of his intentions though, Quammen’s notion that Canada geese offer humans an ecological mandate not only reinforces a Nature-as-purity mythos (against which humans act), but at an even more basic level, his assumptions are simply inaccurate: plenty of geese aren’t straight.
In 1999, Bruce Bagemihl published Biological Exuberance, an impressive compendium of thousands of observed nonheteronormative sexual behaviors and gender nonconformity among animals. Besides giraffes and warthogs and hummingbirds, there’s a section on geese. Researchers have observed that up to 12 percent of pairs were homosexual in populations of Branta canadensis. And it’s not because of a lack of potential mates of the opposite gender. “In one case,” says Bagemihl, “a male harassed a female who was part of a long-lasting lesbian pair and separated her from her companion, mating with her. However, the next year, she returned to her female partner and their pairbond resumed.”
Red squirrels are seasonally bisexual, mounting same-sex partners and other-sex partners with equal fervor. Male boto dolphins penetrate each other’s genital slits as well as blow holes. Primates exhibit all sorts of queer behavior between males and males and females and females. Observing queer behavior in nonhumans is as easy as a trip to the nearest primate house, or a careful observation of the street cats, or the deer nibbling on your shrubs, or the mites on your skin.
The world itself, it turns out, is so queer.
Quammen assumed that geese are straight because it was easy to do. It was easy to assume I was straight, too; I did so for the first eighteen years of my life. But generalizing about the habits of both humans and the more-than-human living world not only denies that certain behavior already exists, it limits the potential for that behavior to become more common, and more commonly accepted.
STEP #3: HONK.
I don’t mean to insist that there is an ecological mandate for being gay. My interest in queering ecology lies in enabling humans to imagine an infinite number of possible Natures. The living world exhibits monogamy. But it also exhibits orgies, gender transformation, and cloning. What, then, is natural? All of it. None of it. Instead of using the more-than-human world as justification for or against certain behavior and characteristics, let’s use the more-than-human world as a humbling indication of the capacity and diversity of all life on Earth.
So many of us humans are queer. Across all social, political, and physical boundaries, 2 to 10 percent of people take part in nonheteronormative behavior. Beyond the scope of sexuality, humans are capable of any number of imaginable and unimaginable behaviors. That I do not eat bull testicles does not mean that that behavior is any less human than my eating of baby back ribs. Why then, if I cohabitate with another man, sharing the same bed, yes even having sex in that bed with that man, am I somehow less human?
A goose is a goose is a goose.
STEP #4: ACKNOWLEDGE THE IRONY.
In a review of Peter Matthiessen’s book The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes, Richard White indicts the “relentless and blinkered earnestness” of nature writing. White claims that because of its “reluctance to deal with paradox, irony, and history, much nature writing reinforces the worst tendencies of environmentalism.” White points out that Matthiessen’s unflinchingly sincere narrative baldly contradicts the circumstances: “The birds are immortal, timeless, and they transport us back into the deep evolutionary past,” writes White. “But then Matthiessen gives us the details. He is sitting in a loud and clattering helicopter during this particular trip to the Eocene.”
If you depict cranes as pure and ancient, with no place in this modern world, then you must ignore all those species that have done quite well in the rice paddies. Writing about nature means accepting that it will prove you wrong. And right. And render you generally confused. Nature is mysterious, and our part in the pageant is shrouded in mystery as well. This means contradiction and paradox and irony. It means that there will always be an exception. Nature has always humiliated the self-congratulatory scientist.
Let’s stop congratulating ourselves. Instead, let’s give a round of applause to the delicious complexity. Let us call this complexity the queer, and let us use it as a verb. Let us queer our ecology. Cranes can be ancient, but they can also be modern. Might their posterity extend past ours?
We’ve inherited a culture that takes its dualisms seriously. Nature, on the one hand, is the ideal, the pure, the holy. On the other hand, it is evil, dangerous, and dirty. The problem? There’s no reconciliation. We accept both notions as separate but equal truths and then organize our world around them. Status quo hurrah! Irony be damned.
Take sexuality, for instance:
We have come to believe, over our Western cultural history, that heterosexual monogamy is the norm, the natural. People who call gays unnatural presume that Nature is pure, perfect, and predictable. Nature intended for a man and a woman to love each other, they say. Gays act against Nature. And yet: we rip open the Earth. We dominate the landscape, compromising the integrity of the living world. We act as though civilization were something better, higher, more valuable than the natural world.
Our culture sets Nature as the highest bar for decorum, while simultaneously giving Nature our lowest standard of respect. Nature is at our disposal, not only for our physical consumption, but also for our social construction. We call geese beautiful and elegant and faithful until they are shitting all over the lawn and terrorizing young children. Then we poison their eggs. Or shoot them.
What I’m getting at is this: those who traditionally hold more power in society — be they men over women, whites over any other race, wealthy over poor, straight over queer — have made their own qualities standard, “natural,” constructing a vision of the world wherein such qualities are the norm. And in so doing, they’ve made everyone else’s qualities perverse, against Nature, against God. Even Nature — defined impossibly as the nonhuman — becomes unnatural when it does not fit the desired norm: the gay geese must be affected by hormone pollution!
A man who has sex with a man must identify himself by his perversion, by his difference. If straight is the identity of I am, then gay becomes I am not. Women are not men. Native people are not white. Nature is not human.
Instead of talking about nonconformity, I want to talk about possibility and unnameably complex reality. What queer can offer is the identity of I am also. I am also human. I am also natural. I am also alive and dynamic and full of contradiction, paradox, irony. Queer knocks down the house of cards and throws them into the warm wind.
STEP #5: DON’T FEAR THE QUEER.
If theses were still in vogue, I would tell you my thesis is queer ecology. But as Zapatista leader Subcommandante Marcos told Pierluigi Sullo from the forest of southeast Mexico (and probably from a table in a house in a village in that forest), “I sincerely believe that you are not searching for a solution, but rather for a discussion.” He’s right.
So what discussion am I looking for?
Well, first, one that is happening at all. I’ve met many kind people (aren’t we all sometimes?) who are so afraid of being politically incorrect that they don’t speak at all — well, at least not about race or gender or sex (this on top of the three taboos of religion, politics, and money). How do I know how I should refer to Indians? Or blacks? Or gays? Or bums, for that matter? It’s just all so complicated now. Queer, then, remains a gesture of hands under the table. A wink.
In the recent past, conversationalists have at least had the weather to fall back on. But the record heat of late with its strange winds of change have whipped away that golden ticket of banality too. So people stop talking, at least about difference, or flux, or complication, altogether. And the floor is left to those who are the loudest and quickest, and who never had any intention of complicating their conversation with anyone or anything that doesn’t conform to their tidy but limited worldview.
STEP #6: ENJOY THE PERFORMANCE.
The problem with unnameably complex reality is that it’s really hard to pin down and even harder to write about. Yet anyone who gives a damn about the ecological health of life on Earth knows that there’s no time for dillydallying.
In the late nineteenth century, a Danish scientist named Eugen Warming first used the term ecology to describe the study of interrelationships between living things. Henry Chandler Cowles, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, brought ecology across the Atlantic with the 1899 publication of his treatise on the succession of the plant life of the Indiana Dunes. Instead of static forests and static lakes and static prairies, Warming and Cowles recognized that these features of the physical world were in flux. As Cowles wrote in his introduction, “Ecology, therefore, is a study in dynamics.”
Queer ecology, then, is the study of dynamics across all phenomena, all behavior, all possibility. It is the relation between past, present, and future.
Yes, we need to act. But we also must recognize that any action is also a performance, and possibly in drag. Any writer who chooses the more-than-human world as subject must acknowledge both the complexity and paradox contained within the subject of nature, as well as the contradictions wrapped up within the writer’s very self. Such a writer will write about the parking lot and the invasive knapweed and the unseasonably warm weather and how he or she is undeniably mixed up in the complications. The poet James Broughton calls it “the mystery of the total self.” Henry Chandler Cowles called it ecology.
It is the relation within the human and the natural and the god and the geese and the past, present, future, body-self-other. A queer ecology is a liberatory ecology. It is the acknowledgment of the numberless relations between all things alive, once alive, and alive once again. No man can categorize those relations without lying. Categories offer us a way of organizing our world. They are tools. They are power.
Acknowledge the power. Acknowledge the lie.
STEP #7: I’M DONE WITH STEPS.
Not so long ago, my father and I drove out of the city of Chicago going east on the Skyway.
On a map, the eastern boundary of the city is clean. It curls southeast along the shore of Lake Michigan, then cuts south at Indiana as straight as a longitudinal line. On the other side of the state line are Whiting, East Chicago, and Gary, towns that only gamblers and family members visit. Everybody else just lives there.
In reality, the eastern boundary of the city has no boundary at all. It continues its concrete, steel, and electrical-line unfurling along the southern shore of the great lake of Michigan. We were two white men, hurtling on four rubber wheels down the concrete Skyway, a corridor of semis and freight trains and transistors and faceless industrial complexes blinking out toward the lake.
I don’t recall what my father and I were talking about. I do recall looking out the window onto the gray April sweep of the old glacial lake bed.
Then I saw the geese. More of them than I had ever imagined could gather. V after V after W after I after V. One after another, each flock waved several hundred feet above the ground. It was spring, and they all flew east along the metal and concrete corridor. They flew along the shore of the lake.
Less than half an hour later, we reached the Indiana Dunes. There were trees: oaks mostly. We opened our car doors to the calls of sandhill cranes. They were calls neither ancient nor modern. They were calls from the deepest present. As we stood in the parking lot, the car engine still pinging, the half-dozen cranes swung across the opening above us and out of sight.
My father and I made eye contact, then looked up from the parking lot into the trees where the cranes had gone. Then we both went off to pee. O
Brilliant article, Alex, thanks. Spot on.
So you’re sayin’ what’s good for the goose is good for gander too? Not exactly earth shattering. Anyone whose spent any time watching animals has observed homosexual behavior, there are also those who are asexual. After ten kids my mother in law ran off with the neighbor lady down the road over thirty years ago.
loved the ambiguity acknowledged by this article; of everything from sexuality to the myth of Nature as a supreme pure entity. way to go Alex, It’s hard to be open to non absolutes and navigate a readable route through the thicket of desire, truth and observations.
Right on, Mr. Johnson. The sooner we learn (or remember) the beautiful ambiguity and differentiation of nature, and ease up on the value judgments and categorical statements, the better. Thanks for this piece.
I don’t think any of this was news to me either, but there’s a lot of people I really wish I could get to sit down and read this and take it seriously. If I had a nickel for every time someone’s dragged out the tired ol’ naturalistic fallacy and waved it in my face like it’s breaking news, well, I’d be in serious need of one of those coin-counting machines, that’s for sure.
Er, I failed to mention — I think this is a really beautiful expression of what the alternative to living by our society’s confused version of the naturalistic fallacy is, and why that alternative is worth pursuing.
I applaud Alex Johnsonâ€™s desire for a conversation about the complex situations in human and non-human life. His piece is worthy of careful consideration and I hope that by giving his essay the careful consideration it deserves, I can in some way further that conversation.
Johnsonâ€™s overarching suggestion in the article is that we ought to engage in a project that he calls â€˜queering ecologyâ€™ or â€˜queering natureâ€™. Based on his description, queering nature involves rejecting the claim that any specific sort of behavior (especially heterosexual behavior) is normative and, likewise, that any sorts of behavior (especially homosexual behavior) are normatively deviant. Further, queering nature involves celebrating the complexity and irony present in, at least, human and non-human social relationships.
Johnsonâ€™s case for denying that any particular behavior is normative stems from his suggestion that we should, as he puts it, â€œlet go of ecological mandates.â€ He contends that this letting go of mandates is justified because there are always exceptions to the generalizations that people use to support such mandates. Further, he seems to hold that discovering what happens in the world around us cannot tell us anything about what we rationally or morally ought to do. By contrast, instead of generalizing about people and viewing some behavior as normative and other behavior as deviant, we should celebrate the irony and complexity of nature in all its forms.
Consider Johnsonâ€™s suggestion that we ought to let go of ecological mandates. The first question we ought to ask about this suggestion is, what, exactly, is an ecological mandate? Johnson approaches the question obliquely by critically analyzing David Quammenâ€™s essay, â€œThe Miracle of the Geese.â€ Unfortunately for us, neither Johnson nor Quammen provide a precise definition of the term. Based on what Johnson and Quammen say in their respective essays, an ecological mandate seems to be a principle in nature that, if violated, will have bad consequences for members of that species, if not for the species as a whole. Johnson portrays the alleged sexual ecological mandate for geese and humans as follows:
â€œIf you are a male, then you must find a female. You must partner with that female, provide for that female, fertilize that female, and love that female for the rest of your life. If you are a female, well, youâ€™ll know what to do.â€ Ostensibly, non-sexual ecological mandates would include, â€œdonâ€™t consume poisonous thingsâ€ and, â€œevade pursuing predators.â€
With a working definition of â€œecological mandateâ€ in place, the second question we ought to ask is what, precisely, letting go of ecological mandates involves. I can think of at least two things Johnson might be asking us to do here. First, Johnson might be asking us to refrain from believing that any ecological mandates exist. Second, Johnson might be asking us to behave in ways that are contrary to any alleged ecological mandates. For present purposes, I will assume that Johnson is asking us to reject belief in ecological mandates.
Why should we think that ecological mandates donâ€™t exist? Johnson claims that the problem with believing in ecological mandates is that the case for their existence relies on false or misleading generalizations. For example, whereas Quammen urges heterosexual monogamy based on his observations of heterosexual, monogamous geese, Johnson cites evidence indicating that some twelve percent of Canada geese establish homosexual pairs. Likewise:
Red squirrels are seasonally bisexual, mounting same-sex partners and other-sex partners with equal fervor. Male boto dolphins penetrate each otherâ€™s genital slits as well as blow holes. Primates exhibit all sorts of queer behavior between males and males and females and females.
In short, Johnson contends that even though most Canada geese are heterosexual, many are not. Mutatis mutandis for humans and other animals. Thus, it is unreasonable to argue for human heteronormativity based on an overly simplistic generalization about the sexual habits of geese (or humans, for that matter).
Although Johnson may have the statistical facts straight, his case for the rejection of belief in ecological mandates is unconvincing. The mere presence of organisms whose behavior deviates from a particular pattern does not by itself provide good reason to think that ecological mandates, sexual or otherwise, do not exist. Even if twelve percent of geese exhibit homosexual behavior, it still seems true that if enough members of a particular goose species did not exhibit something akin to monogamous, heterosexual behavior, that species would eventually die out as a result. Likewise, it doesnâ€™t take much imagination to think of what would become of a species if its members decided en masse to start consuming poisonous things or to stop evading hungry predators. In short, contrary to what Johnson would have us believe, it seems reasonable to think that at least some ecological mandates do exist. Organisms that fail to follow these mandates fail to pass on their genes to the next generation. If enough organisms fail to follow these mandates, the species dies out.
Another important question at hand is not whether ecological mandates exist, but whether moral mandates exist and whether observing nature can help us figure out what these mandates are, if there are any. Here, Johnson is correct to criticize Quammenâ€™s argument. Just because members of a particular non-human species exhibit certain behavior, it does not follow that humans ought morally to do likewise. It is well known, for example, that if a male lion successfully challenges another male lion that has already sired offspring, then the victorious challenger will kill the vanquished lionâ€™s cubs and mate with the lioness. Surely, it is unreasonable to think that humans should follow the lead of lions in this case. Forcibly attacking a man, killing his children and having sex with his wife would be morally unconscionable, to say the least.
Still, it does not follow from this that all efforts to, as it were, â€˜read morality off of natureâ€™ are doomed to failure. It does not seem unreasonable, for example, to think that an action is morally wrong if and because it is in some way environmentally unsustainable. More specifically, it seems that one can sensibly argue that the typical American lifestyle of consumption and waste is fundamentally immoral because if enough people lived that way (and, unfortunately, enough people do seem to be living this way), it would have disastrous consequences not just for the planet, but for humanity as well. What this seems to show is that any lifestyle which, if followed by enough people, would bring about the end of humanity within a century or two is a bad lifestyle. Minimally, a lifestyle of this sort is not something we ought to encourage.
But by this same standard, the homosexual lifestyle is also a bad one. If everyone lived a homosexual lifestyle, humanity would end within a century or so because no new humans would be born to keep the population going. That seems like a pretty disastrous consequence. Since the homosexual lifestyle is unsustainable in this way, it is not something we ought to encourage. One might object that we could use combination of artificial insemination and adoption to keep our species going, and therefore a homosexual lifestyle is sustainable and therefore okay. But by the same token, one could argue that since we can clean up pollution in one area while we pollute other areas, a consumptive and wasteful lifestyle is sustainable and therefore okay. I leave it to the reader to determine whether this would constitute a plausible defense of the sustainability of the typical American lifestyle; mutatis mutandis for a homosexual one. For better or worse, since my main concern is Johnsonâ€™s contention that we ought to queer nature, the above considerations on the issue of homosexuality will have to do for now.
Although I suspect that not many readers will be moved by what I have said about homosexual lifestyles, they should seriously consider whether queering nature is consonant with pro-gay values. I contend that it is not. As noted above, queering nature involves celebrating the ironies found in the world. As Johnson puts it, we ought to â€œgive a round of applause to the delicious complexityâ€ found in nature. For his part, Johnson provides the following irony:
â€œWe have come to believe, over our Western cultural history, that heterosexual monogamy is the norm, the natural. People who call gays unnatural presume that Nature is pure, perfect, and predictable. Nature intended for a man and a woman to love each other, they say. Gays act against Nature. And yet: we rip open the Earth. We dominate the landscape, compromising the integrity of the living world. We act as though civilization were something better, higher, more valuable than the natural world.â€
If we take Johnsonâ€™s suggestion seriously, we ought to celebrate this irony. We ought to give a round of applause to the fact that some of the same people who call gay behavior unnatural also ruin ecosystems. But what, exactly, is worthy of celebrating here? At best, the people he has in mind have simply failed to see that their values are inconsistent. At worst, the people he has in mind are hypocrites. Johnson doesnâ€™t say what it is about intellectual inconsistency or outright hypocrisy that is worthy of our applause, but neither of these things seem worthy of celebration by anyone who cares about other people or the facts.
The problem with Johnsonâ€™s suggestion becomes more apparent if we use a starker example. The complexity of human social interactions sometimes includes â€œgay bashingâ€â€”the physical or emotional abuse of a man or a woman because he or she is thought to be gay or lesbian. If we follow Johnsonâ€™s suggestion, we ought to celebrate the fact that our world is complex enough to include gay bashing. I fail to find anything worthy of celebration in this situation, and I should think that Johnson doesnâ€™t either.
Perhaps one could remedy Johnsonâ€™s suggestion by urging that itâ€™s the complexity of the situation itself that we ought to celebrate, not the gay bashing. I think there are several problems even with this suggestion. Among other things, it seems that if gay bashing and other acts like rape or genocide did not occur, our world would be less socially complex than it is, but it would also be a better world. Isnâ€™t this the point of opposing such awful deeds? In other words, sometimes a simpler situation is more worthy of celebration than a more complex one. If so, then the mere complexity of a situation cannot itself be something worthy of admiration or celebration. Rather, whether a complex or ironic situation ought to be celebrated depends at least in part on whether the components that make the situation complex or ironic are themselves worthy of celebration.
Like it or not, some ecological mandates exist. Further, there is nothing inherently worthy of celebration in complexity or irony itself. Sometimes a simpler or less ironic situation is the one we should seek to create and applaud. In short, queering nature is a bad idea. Things in nature are bad enough as it is these days. Letâ€™s instead work on improving nature.
I don’t want to presume to speak for the author here, TrueProgressive, but from where I stand it looks like you just spent an awful lot of electrons *completely missing the expletive-deleted point*. How can you seriously think he’s suggesting it might be okay to pave the planet when he says things like, “The problem with unnameably complex reality is that itâ€™s really hard to pin down and even harder to write about. Yet anyone who gives a damn about the ecological health of life on Earth knows that thereâ€™s no time for dillydallying. “? I woulda thought a more sensible interpretation of the article is just that maybe we shouldn’t get so caught up in sectioning complex phenomena into tiny, convenient boxes that we lose track of the forest because we’re too busy labeling the trees.
Nice one. You might like my essay “Queer Ecology” (PMLA):
Too inviting of complexity rather than simplicity for my taste.Given that complexity exists, I find high value in “less words, more meaning” discussion and intention.Logic and the limits of reason is a complex but ultimately sophmoric debate in my short view of “getting essential stuff done” orientation. Still, very thought provoking. Nice, but gotta let it go ……. root myself in ground and work to help things grow.
I like the inherent sanity of this piece, its euphony and skill of prosody. The Zen conclusion (the silent and spontaneous adoration of the open mystery followed by the reminder of a full bladder) — there is a calm, centered, and orderly passion to this writing from first note to last. The flame, with all its heat, movement, and and urgent unpredictability (the very elements of passion), has structure and sense; order and quantum precision.
As I read the article and rebuttal by Trueprogressive I feel that I am in a company Iâ€™m perhaps not worthy of, however, I feel I must put in my two cents as it were. As I read the original essay I am struck by the author saying that if animals do this or that then it should be all right for humans to accept it. Is that right? Should we determine or establish our humanity only by things that the natural world does? Doesnâ€™t the fact that we are human mean that by reason we may consider a practice or lifestyle and to be desirable or undesirable and then accept or reject it in our society? As pointed out by a previous commentator should we accept the ritual killing by the new king of a lion pride or like lowland gorillas occasionally attack, kill and eat the young of their tribe. These are things animals do. A human who did these things would be captured, tried and imprisoned, at least. To attempt to find our morality from nature means that we have decided to abandon out humanity and live as animals. I donâ€™t condemn a gay lifestyle, as that is a choice each must make on their own ,but to attempt to justify that life style by citing what chimpanzees or dolphins do appears to me to put yourself in a group not quite human.
Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments. Since the title of Johnsonâ€™s essay is, â€œHow to Queer Ecology,â€ and since Johnson states at the outset that â€œnature is in need of a good queering,â€ I took his main point in the essay to be that we should start â€˜queeringâ€™ nature. Likewise, since he proposes that we, â€œlet go of ecological mandates,â€ and â€œstop generalizing,â€ I took him to be claiming that queering nature involves refusing to treat any particular type of behavior as normative, and it also involves not making generalizations about reality. I agree that in part of Johnsonâ€™s essay he urges that there are more important matters at hand than figuring out precisely where nature ends and humanity begins, and so forth. The quote you provide shows as much. But why think that this was the only point of the essay, or even the main point, especially in light of the considerations Iâ€™ve provided above and in my original commentary?
There was a lot more that I could have said about the article (including that the second sentence in the quote youâ€™ve provided sounds a lot like an ecological mandate), but I didnâ€™t think that too many people would want to read a commentary that is longer than the original article. At no time did I claim that Johnson was urging us to pave the planet. Rather, I argued that the project that he calls â€œqueering ecologyâ€ or â€œqueering natureâ€ is a bad idea because, among other things, it is at odds with the values and goals of people who are either pro-gay or pro-environment.
Thanks for reading.
Correct me if I am wrong; there is ‘a bit’ of male / female paradigm divide exhibited on this discussion page :).
I love this article!
Right on Alex. Thanks for a great thought provoking article.
Alex, I admire the thoughtfulness, confidence, and hard synthesis in your thinking and your writing. Thank you for taking us with you in this piece.
“Why do we need so many kinds of apples? Because there are so many folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate taste. If he wants twenty or forty kinds of apples for his personal use, running from Early Harvest to Roxbury Russet, he should be accorded the privilegeâ€¦ there is merit in variety itself. It provides more contact with life, and leads away from uniformity and monotony.â€ Liberty Hyde Bailey, American agriculturalist, early 1900â€™s
Diversity is certainly a value in itself, but we still need to define what is ‘legitimate’ and therefore moral in our tastes and relationships with the rest of Life. There is a moral dimension operating parallel to the ecological one that we ignore at our peril. The search for that moral dimension has rightfully occupied much of human endeavour for a very long time…
TrueProgressive, I think you might be overthinking the issue. Anne C. Hanson has offered a response that covers it well and adequately, so I won’t go on, but I would like to say that there is no need to try to “improve on Nature”, as that is impossible and unnecessary. The only thing we can improve is our own attitude, our personal filter through which we process life, and our expectations. Nature’s perfection is in the dynamics of energy manifesting matter manifesting experience, offering development of our human understanding. We can improve our understanding of each being’s wish to be loved, and act accordingly. That’s all.
Whoops, sorry, Anne C. Hanna, not Hanson.
Heck yeah, Alex!
Your use of hyperbole, insinuation that homosexuality is a choice, and discussion of deviance show a very shallow understanding of this authorâ€™s exploration of queering nature.
First, you use hyperbole (i.e., your â€œgay-bashingâ€ example) to make your point. This is an unpersuasive rhetorical tool, particularly since â€œgay bashingâ€ is a behavioral choice whereas homosexuality is inherent. Your analogy, therefore, fails because it operates on a flawed underlying assumption.
Equally troubling to me is your use of the term â€œhomosexual lifestyleâ€. The word â€œlifestyleâ€ implies that homosexuality is a choice. It is not. Your discussion of homosexuality on an evolutionary scale (â€œSince the homosexual lifestyle is unsustainable in this way, it is not something we ought to encourage.â€) also suffers from this limited understanding.
You state: â€œThe mere presence of organisms whose behavior deviates from a particular pattern does not by itself provide good reason to think that ecological mandates, sexual or otherwise, do not exist.â€ The point of this article is that actually homosexual behavior is not deviant, it is merely a part of the spectrum of â€œnormalcyâ€ that comprises the natural world. The author is not arguing that everyone ought to be queer, merely that some people are, and that that is natural.
Your argument operates under assumptions that this article seeks to transcend. It is a profoundly discouraging response to the exploration of sexuality and nature here.
You know what? It sure is difficult for a body to achieve complete unselfconsciousness. I think that might be what our author is yearning for here. Good on him if he achieves it. There is something akin to the bliss of nature if he does, I reckon, and I count that completely acceptable when you are talking about human behavior that (should) have no victim. Homosexuality, as I see it, is one of those.
Such an interesting exploration of this topic. Than you so much for addressing this and in such an entertaining way!
“TrueProgressive”, I really think you’re still completely missing the point. In fact, the way you are missing the point is almost a caricature of exactly what (from my perspective) the article appears to be arguing against. You seem to be insisting that we must interpret Alex’s words through the lens of the same kind of dualism that he’s attempting to call into question in this context. I’m a scientist, and a very mathematical scientist to boot, so I know all about right vs. wrong, either vs. or, and how useful it can be to approach the problems with such a perspective. But in real world problems it’s very rare that the most useful interpretation is so simple; both/and is often a far more useful approach.
In the real world “gay” and “straight” aren’t boolean categories. They’re extremes on a spectrum (a probably multidimensional spectrum, for that matter) of human sexuality. Same for “female” and “male”, “wild” and “domestic”, “natural” and “artificial”. All too often, people insist that these must be boolean choices, and insist further on identifying one of the boolean options as always and intrinsically “good” and the other as always and intrinsically “bad”. In my opinion, treating real world objects as if they existed in some sort of idealized binary mathematical space is a disastrous category error, which tends to lead to terrible mismanagement of some very serious issues, and I believe this is what Alex was trying to express.
Until we learn to recognize complexity for what it is instead of insisting that it masquerade as simplicity for the benefit of our limited analytical tools, we are going to keep messing up when faced with the confusing worlds of sexuality, environmental management, and many other issues. And until you learn to read with a both/and mindset rather than an either/or mindset you are going to keep badly missing the authors’ points. I do not believe that Alex was attempting to say that we should recognize complexity to the complete exclusion of having and acting on ecological concerns. Rather, the point is that naive oversimplification can blind us to the implications of the complexity that exists in real ecologies, just as it blinds us to compassionate understanding of real human sexualities. Unfortunately, you seem to be so deep in some kind of binary perception informed by your own agendas as to be committed to finding any possible malicious construal of Alex’s words which allows you to place them clearly in your “bad” category.
But this is probably a mess you need to find your way out of yourself; I don’t think any of the rest of us can help you with that. All I can suggest is rereading the essay very carefully and very slowly, trying to understand what the author means, instead of simply glancing through it quickly and settling on a few trigger words that, in isolation, seem to provide a basis for disagreement.
I’m not really interested in getting into a point-by-point back and forth, since you seem to have only read the few points which you could nitpick and to have missed the general sense of the article. It’s almost as if, to misuse my phrase from before, you missed seeing the forest because you got so excited about critiquing the bark patterns on the trees.
I second Long Sigh’s response, and would just like to add that the dualistic thinking cited by Alex Johnson based on “natural/unnatural” distinctions could easily be scotched altogether if one views the matter from a more radical basis, which would simply say that everything has a nature, so what could possibly be considered unnatural? Anything and everything IS natural, according to its OWN nature. There is only nature!
Likewise, implications here also extend other terms we somehow still insist on using, like “supernatural” — easily dismissed since, as everything has its own nature, then it would follow that if ghosts or angels existed, they would have to have their own nature as well, no? (Albeit an inaccessible one, perhaps… 😉 How could there be anything “above” nature (as in “super-“)?
That was amazing and on point!
Or, you could say: There are two kinds of people in this world; those who divide people into two categories, and those who don’t.
Recently I wrote a blog entry offering a leftist critique of the ideology of â€œGreenâ€ environmentalism, deep ecology, eco-feminism, and lifestyle politics in general (veganism, â€œdumpster diving,â€ â€œbuying organic,â€ “locavorism,” etc.). Iâ€™d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter and any responses you might have to its criticisms. See rosswolfe.wordpress.com
I am deeply perplexed by TrueProgressives argument, and find it decidedly unscientific.
â€œEven if twelve percent of geese exhibit homosexual behavior, it still seems true that if enough members of a particular goose species did not exhibit something akin to monogamous, heterosexual behavior, that species would eventually die out as a result.â€
Huh? Why must a species exhibit something akin to monogamous heterosexual behavior? Yes, there must be some form of heterosexual mating in order to have reproduction. However, that can be accomplished with many reproductive strategies, from harem polygyny (as practiced by many herding animals, gorillas, etc.), to the free-love style polygamy of Bonobos, to the â€œpump and dumpâ€ strategy of solitary mammals, even to the extremes of advanced eusocial insects, where the vast majority forgo reproduction entirely in order to support the reproduction of one individual.
I would even question whether the majority of geese practice heterosexual monogamy. One of the recent findings in bird behavior is the extent to which species that exhibit long-term pair bonding are not actually monogamous. Many species once thought to â€œmate for lifeâ€ actually engage in a lot of out-of-pair mating – in many cases eggs in the same clutch were fertilized by more than one male.
Interestingly, many (possibly most) of these species do not seem to exhibit male genetic preferences in parental investment â€“ males do not seem to distinguish between chicks that are their biological children and chicks that are not. A first glance that sounds mal-adaptive. However, if we also suppose that males are regularly â€œcheatingâ€ with females outside their own pair-bond, as well as raising chicks fathered by other males, then what we are really seeing is probably an altruistic adaptation. “Cheating” can serve as a reproductive insurance policy â€“ if a males nest gets raided by a predator, they have offspring in another nest that may survive. In which case, equally sharing in raising the chicks of other males helps insure their own chicks are cared for, and the entire species fitness is enhanced.
What this illustrates is one of the critical aspects of evolution â€“ evolution promotes what IS adaptive, not what we THINK should be adaptive. If 12 percent of geese engage in homo-sexual pair bonding, then we have to conclude that there is probably some adaptive reason for that, unless we have some evidence to the contrary.
In this case I see no strong evidence to the contrary â€“ just an a-priori assumption about what goose sexuality â€œshould be.â€
Scientifically, deviation from an expected norm DOES call the norm into question. That is fundamental to the scientific method â€“ when the data deviates from your hypothesis, you reject the hypothesis – you donâ€™t reject the data to maintain your hypothesis.
Ultimately that is the scientific underpinning of Johnson’s much more poetic essay. What he calls queering of ecology is, in a sense, just doing good science â€“ learning from nature by observing what is actually going on in nature. Leave your pre-conceived notions at the door, because the complexity of the natural world can only be understood when we approach it with a mind open to the incredible richness and diversity of life.
Given the number of people who have posted in support of Johnsonâ€™s project, I find it odd that no one has yet celebrated the fact that my critique increases the diversity of views represented on this website. If nothing is really good or bad, just different, and if diversity is inherently worthy of celebration, then why aren’t more people celebrating in here? Or is it only sexual and cultural diversity among people who are ideologically like-minded that is to be celebrated?
With that general consideration out of the way, Iâ€™ll provide some more specific comments to the readers who have been gracious enough to respond to my earlier critique.
You suggest that, â€œThe only thing we can improve is our own attitude, our personal filter through which we process life, and our expectations.â€ How is it possible to improve on *anything* if there are, ex hypothesi, no real standards of progress?
@ Long Sigh:
I used the term â€œgay bashingâ€ to make a point, but not the one you think I made. My point was that, contrary to what Johnson appears to suggest, not all complexity is worthy of celebration. Human social relationships are made more complex by the fact that people are sometimes assaulted because they are thought to be gay or lesbian. I argued that since the world would be better off if this sort of thing never happened, even though the world would be socially less complex as a result, then complexity itself cannot be something worthy of celebration. I never made a connection between â€œgay bashingâ€ and the debate over whether homosexuality is a choice. Likewise, I used the term â€œgay bashingâ€ because it is a commonly-used term. What term would you suggest I use to describe such deplorable actions?
Further, I did not claim anything one way or the other about whether homosexuality (i.e., the disposition to have sexual feelings toward members of oneâ€™s own sex) is a choice. Iâ€™ve read arguments defending either side on this issue, but so far Iâ€™m not convinced one way or the other. Given your apparent level of confidence that homosexuality (or oneâ€™s sexual disposition in general) is inherent, you presumably have considerable evidence at your disposal to prove as much. Feel free to provide it and Iâ€™ll look it over.
More to the point, what I *did* claim is that a homosexual lifestyle (i.e., engaging in a short or long-term sexual relationship with a member of oneâ€™s own sex) is a choice. It is a choice just as much as a bisexual, heterosexual, or abstinent lifestyle is a choice. It may be that one cannot help but feel attracted toward a certain person or kind of people, but to infer on that basis that one cannot help but *act* a certain way toward the object(s) of oneâ€™s affections is a blatant non-sequitur.
Finally, we both agree that on Johnsonâ€™s view, no particular type of sexuality is normative. Rather, on his view there is a spectrum of sexual preference and practice, and none is any better or more right than any other. My objection was to his claim that there are no ecological mandates *at all* in nature. At least, this is what I took him to be advocating when he claims that we ought to, â€œlet go of ecological mandates.â€ Leave sexuality out of it for a minute. Is it true that there are no ecological mandates *at all* in nature? I gave reasons for thinking that there are at least some mandates and I gave putative examples of such mandates.
@ Anne C. Hanna
You make many assertions about my views and my motives, but you support these assertions with little to no data. Since you donâ€™t actually argue against what I’ve said about Johnson’s project, I see no further need to address your repeated assertion; especially since I supported my view with evidence from the article itself. There is a more important issue that I want to address, so Iâ€™ll focus on that instead.
To claim that I am missing *the* point assumes that there is only *one* main point in the article, such that if someone misses it or mischaracterizes it, their interpretation of the article is *incorrect*. In other words, on your view my interpretation of Johnsonâ€™s view is a *bad* one because it is *inaccurate*. To make this claim appears to require that you use the very same dualistic paradigm that you and others want to reject; namely, a paradigm in which â€˜correctâ€™ and â€™incorrectâ€™ or â€˜goodâ€™ and â€˜badâ€™ are categories that sometimes accurately describe the world. If so, how is your position even self-consistent?
@ Ragweed (John)
Take another look at my original critique. In context, I was making a claim about Canada Geese, not all species of animals, or even all species of mammals, for that matter. Your claims about gorillas, bonobos, and the like are irrelevant to what I actually said. Even so, suppose that as it is with deer and other species, geese could get along just fine without the male staying around to help raise the goslings. It would still be the case that some sort of heterosexual sex is ecologically mandatory. You couldnâ€™t have an exclusively homosexual mammalian species; at least not for long. Minimally, then, there is an ecological mandate against exclusive homosexuality; at least at the species level if not lower.
You also claim that, â€œIf 12 percent of geese engage in homo-sexual pair bonding, then we have to conclude that there is probably some adaptive reason for that, unless we have some evidence to the contrary.â€
I donâ€™t see why we should think that the burden of proof lies solely on those who would deny that a particular phenomenon is adaptive. There seem to be all sorts of things present in nature that confer no survival value on the organisms that have them. For example, how many humans are born with wisdom teeth? Or goose bumps? More than twelve percent, Iâ€™d guess. Perhaps some features were once adaptive, or perhaps they exist as by-products of mechanisms or actions that are adaptive, but if there are such things as spandrels or vestigial organs then I see no reason to be as optimistic as you in this area. Similarly, perhaps a limited degree of homosexuality is in some way adaptive for a given species (say, at the group level if you believe in group selection), perhaps it isnâ€™t. Either way, I think a more reasonable view to take on this issue is that whoever makes the claim bears the burden of proof. Also, correct me if Iâ€™m wrong on this, but I think that in chapter five of Biological Exuberance, Bruce Bagemihl himself rejects the idea that homosexuality in animals exists because it is adaptive.
On a similar note, you claim that, â€œScientifically, deviation from an expected norm DOES call the norm into question. That is fundamental to the scientific method â€“ when the data deviates from your hypothesis, you reject the hypothesis – you donâ€™t reject the data to maintain your hypothesis.â€ I think this is an overly simplistic view of how science actually works. Sometimes the data is bad. (Piltdown Man, anyone?) In those cases, youâ€™d be better off not revising your theory in light of the data; rather, youâ€™d be better off rejecting the data.
Finally, Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ll be shocked to read that Iâ€™m less enthusiastic than you about whether what Johnson proposes is really just good science. While it is certainly important that scientists (and the rest of us) be open to having our beliefs overturned by good data, I donâ€™t think science is even possible without pre-conceived notions of some sort. For example, how could anyone do science without pre-supposing that the material world exists, and that our minds are sometimes able to grasp what is really â€œout thereâ€ in the world? How could anyone do science without thinking that there is such a thing as scientific methodology, and that this methodology is at least sometimes reliable? Similarly, to test a hypothesis you have to have *some* idea of what it is that you are (and arenâ€™t) looking for. Otherwise, how could you design and carry out your experiment? How would you know whether that experiment was successful?
Thank you for your time, one and all.
@ Anne C. Hanna
Despite our differences, there is a lot about the essay that we agree on. For example, we agree (as does Johnson) that there is a spectrum of sexual preference and practice in nature, and that there is no hard and fast divide between what is natural (i.e., part of nature) and what is human. Likewise, we agree that there is often more complexity in nature than our concepts let on, and we agree that there is a lot of environmental mismanagement going on.
My aim in my posts has been to argue that it is unreasonable to infer from these claims to the conclusion that there is no such thing as an objectively right or wrong action, or that concepts or categories or generalizations never correctly apply to the world.
TrueProgressive, for one, you still haven’t actually established that the article actually argues what you claim it’s arguing in this last paragraph of yours:
“My aim in my posts has been to argue that it is unreasonable to infer from these claims to the conclusion that there is no such thing as an objectively right or wrong action, or that concepts or categories or generalizations never correctly apply to the world.”
You quote-mined, I pointed out that it was a quote-mine, and then you didn’t actually back up your quote-mine in any meaningful way.
Although, truthfully, when you state your argument in the exact words of the paragraph, even if his article *was* making the argument you claim it was, I’d still agree with Alex instead of with you. I’d *dearly* love to hear you make an argument in favor of objective right and wrong as opposed to some kind of averaged human preferences, or evolved heuristics to create successful societies, or other sets of guidelines to satisfy specific sets of goals. Because then I really *will* shred you in detail instead of just dismissing you as a malicious quote miner. But maybe you aren’t really trying to defend “objective” morality and you actually mean something else?
The more words are expended, the more disingenuity rears its transparent head, and consummation via a communion of meaning remains far, far away…
Iâ€™ve actually come to be much more inspired by Dinoâ€™s earlier plea for simplicity, than anything anyone else has said (or rather tried to say). When humans became word-positing beings, we began our long and confused linguistic engagement with the complexity of the universe and all its contents, in ways which would naturally come to generate far too much of our own complexity for us to handle with basic satisfaction and clarity (and letâ€™s not even admit a misuse of â€œobjectivityâ€ here). Outstripped and regularly defeated by our own unchecked — and inaccessible — degrees of complexity, weâ€™ve largely come to our current and endless engagement with complication as well.
Perhaps we might consider indigenous tribes as possible models for us (as part of a return to simplicity) who, while communicating via language yet also through other symbols, do so in far more respectful, albeit limited, ways; nonetheless it seems clear that thinking along the lines of â€œlimitedâ€ is of necessity for us at this time. Perhaps a genuine return to simplicity might be the great discovery of this century; but we will have to see just how much we are willing to give up.
Anyway, hereâ€™s to Dino!
I have just read an ORION article and comments for the first time in many months. What I have to say comes from the mind and the heart of a well-educated gay man who, through the thick and the thin, has been with the same, younger guy for just short of l9 years — statistically exceptional in gay America. We celebrate the reality.
Whether homosexual behavior, seen either in bonding or random situations, is perceived as normal, as “abiguity,” as “unfortunate” or simply inevitable remains one’s personal choice!
What traumatizes us and leads to our steering clear of anything that, in public, would trigger finger pointing (or worse) is NOT the words and/or acts of homophobes unable to read or even partly comprehend the remarks by Alex or his readers. It may startle you to know that what prompts a low profile is (a) the sheer indifference of some relatives, friends and, of course, neighbors and (b) the supremely tragic fact that global warming/climate change, kicked by millions to the side of the road, will make biological survival on planet Earth improbable. Aware people like Al Gore and Bill McKibben et al have their audience, we included, yet it is still modest in size, alas.
I write without bitterness, wishing that springtime 2011 was all about the scent of narcissus, the migrating whales off the Oregon coast, and the sweet kids dreaming of chocolate Easter eggs. My words are just fragments of sociopolitical realism I now cast into cyberspace.
“We opened our car doors to the calls of sandhill cranes. They were calls neither ancient nor modern. They were calls from the deepest present.”
Beautiful. Interesting discussion going on here, but I for one am looking forward to reading Mr. Johnson’s work in the future.
There is good information, insight and creativity in the article. I believe it will help further the understanding of embracing ambiguity as a way of learning something deeper than found in outdated models of dualism as a way to live in a complicated world.
Also, I would like to share some words from Trappist Thomas Merton:
“The dread of being open to the ideas of others generally comes from our hidden insecurity of our own convictions.”
“Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and when possible, rise above them.”
“It helps to love people who are different than yourself. If we only love people who are like ourselves, we will never learn the what love really is.”
If we disagree about how to interpret a particular piece of writing and the only hard data we have is the writing itself, how else can we adjudicate our disagreement besides referring back to what the author has actually written? In writing my original post, I made a sincere effort to understand and accurately represent Johnson’s main claims. To claim that I am just quote mining assumes, among other things, that I have taken Alex Johnson’s words out of context. Please be so kind as to present your reasons for thinking that I have done this; preferably by either including something else he says that is at odds with the interpretation I’ve offered, or by showing how your interpretation makes better sense of the quotes I have provided in supporting my interpretation of his essay.
Finally, that you would dearly love for me to provide an argument on a different but related topic just so you could try and “shred me” is disheartening. I really wish you wouldn’t take this approach, but at least now I know. As such, I have decided not to respond to any more of your posts related to the Johnson article. Even so, you are welcome to have the last word on this and I will give thoughtful consideration to what you say.
I wish you all the best.
Why do people like Mr. Johnson find it necessary to put their erotic predilections on display? Human beings can have sex. They can have it with other humans, or a variety of other objects, animate and inanimate. This ability does nothing to distinguish our species. It does nothing to distinguish an individual – adds nothing to one’s life achievements. It’s not something you list on a resume. On the contrary, those who are able to rise above their animal instincts, to set them aside as inconsequential relative to the well-being of the community, and the planet, are the people we should be praising and looking to for leadership.There is a reason why wise men, priests and gurus are celibate – it’s about self-control. Something that animals don’t have.
There are aspects of human social life that are best kept private — sexuality is one of them. Discrete, quiet, non-promotional … DISCRETE: that’s how dignified, respectful, cordial people behave. If I’m at a party with you, or I see you at lunch, or in the office, don’t worry … I’ll figure out what you like. It’s the *subtleties* of communication that give it away. Even animals are able to use this body language. Subtle is sexy. Subtle is alluring. Discrete, keep people guessing — eye contact, slight movements. How strange it is that we homo sapiens, with our superior, even divine some would say, brains and minds, must fall back on such gross behaviors to signal our desires – announcing them to the world on neon-flashing billboards. Look — if you like sleeping with gerbils, the vast majority of us DO NOT WANT TO KNOW! And those who do, will figure it out eventually.
And please don’t go calling me “homophobic”. It’s the word that’s all the rage in the progressive lexicon for people who aren’t on the “gay rights” bandwagon. I lived with a gay man for 8 years. Grew up with gay kids. Have eaten and drunk at gay bars. But I’m entirely sick of hearing about the poor, downtrodden queers in the world, and how we must now discard centuries, millennia, worth of culture in order to make them feel loved and welcome in society.
Yesterday Mr. Al Gabis, declaring the word “homophobic” inappropriate when directed at his remarks(he insists he is familiar with homosexuals and the sites many frequent) announces that all people must be “…able to rise above their animal instincts” — to include odd ones found in Canada geese or squirrels — or a least exhibit “discreet” facades if they are pathetically, weakly homosexual.
Heterosexual or homosexual (or somewhere in between), any person incapable or unwilling to capitulate to his pontifical decreee, is shouting that “…we must now discard centuries,millennia of culture….” Why? So that such uncivilized human beings will “…feel loved and welcome in society.” I quote Mr. Gabis to italicize some of his words.
In the context of his final sentence, how many would consider the following persons uncivilized: Plato, Michelangelo, Walt Whitman, Peter Tchaikovsky, James Beard, and, still robust, Ellen Degeneres? I point to only a few, and they rise beyond “animal instincts.” THEY GAVE GENEROUSLY AND WITHOUT PHOBIAS TO THE CIVILIZATION THAT NOURISHED THEM.
Great article Alex, it seems like you are really passionate about the subject, which is great!! Please keep opening more people’s mind to be more accepting to it!!!
Considering how Canada geese are adapting to human environments and expanding in population, we should adopt an aggressive program encouraging them to form same-sex pair bonds. This will swiftly reduce the population and prevent them from competing for valuable habitat with other species at risk.
As a gay man who writes about nature, I took great pleasure and inspiration in reading this article, Alex.
I’m wondering if there’s a little bit of confusion between 2 different arguments in this discussion?
Argument 1 being:
If a behaviour (the examples here being used: homosexuality, homophobic violence) happens in nature, then it is a nonsense to condemn it as unnatural.
…and argument 2 being:
If a behaviour happens in nature then it is natural and therefore morally acceptable.
These are quite different arguments
I have always been amused at the theory of the human “alpha” type. Common among canines and several other species, the human classified as alpha appears to be a pariah, using strong-arm tactics to overcome those perceived to be weaker than. Instead, it is indicative of greed and power-seeking. Some have become very adept at it.
Sigh. TrueProgressive, I didn’t bother to read your most recent comment for a while, because arguing with your distortions of Alex’s work was just becoming so exhausting and disheartening, and now that I have read it, it seems that you have also distorted and misconstrued what I said in order to find an excuse to dismiss me. I think you’re right that there’s no point in us talking further. Have a nice life.
If I may, I would like to join Ms. Anne Hanna in her very bold,candid reference to what “TrueProgressive” has added to this discussion — or, as I prefer to call it — necessary dialogue.
Early on, a month ago, “abmiguity” was spotted in this topic so well explored by Mr. Johnson. I continue to believe that ambiguity permeates even the densest topics or “issues,” to use the word so popular in 2011.
But there was no real ambiguity in the quiet, private celebration of our nineteenth anniversary on the 26th. “Time will tell” means more to us as the months slip behind us AND, at the same time, as we turn our hearts toward a safe, joyful future for all of humanity!
Congratulations on your anniversary, Frederick! I certainly agree that one thing that is pretty darn unambiguous is the wonder of having someone to love.
I just tackled a paper on the intersection of Queer Theory and ecofeminism for a PhD seminar course. The basis or inspiration for this paper was Johnson’s article, which was well-crafted whether one agreed with the premise or not (though it is hard to see why one wouldn’t). I went through the responding comments with great labor, particularly the critique of Johnson’s article by TrueProgressive (and replies by Ms. Hanna and others as well). I agree with Hanna that TrueProgressive has missed the point. I take away from Johnson that he is not arguing as TrueProgressive would have us believe that “Nature” should have species depart from heterosexual pairings/mating.” Rather, his point is simply that if Nature or the world itself exhibits “Queer(ness),” then why should we accept an ecological mandate as humans that suggests “Queer” is somehow unnatural? An ecologically progressive forester I once worked with urged me to view landscapes with a more macro or systemic view (broaden it beyond a specific site to encompass the U.S. landscape perhaps) – a quilt of sorts in which multiple landscapes can work within one large and far-reaching, interactive system — one in which each piece is integral to the natural balance of the whole. This visual metaphor worked well for me to understand Johnson’s claim as well. To differentiate “Queer” from the larger ecology is unnatural. The “normative” is the whole quilt; not specific “pieces” (with adjacent pieces subjected to categories of deviant) as TrueProgressive tries to suggest we should accept. Where I might myself interject one contemplation or point of discussion is this (keeping in mind this is not a criticism of homosexuality): What if human activity is contributing to a growing percentage of homosexual activity in the natural world (e.g., increased use of detergents and impacts on fish and amphibian populations). Is this human activity “natural” or not if the result were, for example, a declining species population? It almost feels as though blurring the line between nature/human (Queering Ecology) is acceptable. until that time we, as humans, cross it. My hope is that a critical and contemplative writer like Johnson will be able to illuminate that tension in a follow-up article! Well done.
Courtney, glad to see you got something interesting out of the whole thing. 🙂
One tiny little nitpick I have (which maybe isn’t even really related to what you were thinking, and maybe is instead just about what’s going on in my own head) is that I’m always a little bugged by the concept of ecological balance. It strikes me as kind of teleological viewpoint, which is in dramatic conflict with the scientific understanding of evolution and environmental change as unguided processes. I tend to prefer to think of seemingly stable environmental states as attractors (in the sense of chaos theory), about which systems will tend to orbit for a while, but which the system can also potentially escape, either due to some external perturbation or just due to the intrinsically chaotic nature of the system’s evolution. In this view, each piece contributes to the maintenance of the system in a near-stable state, but each piece can also contribute to destruction of that stable state, by deviating from the requirements for stability in just the wrong way at just the wrong time.
Nature is complex and beautiful, and we and every other creature are heavily reliant on it remaining in something reasonably approximating the conditions under which we evolved. But even if we don’t screw things up ourselves, ultimately there are no guarantees.
@Courtney Woods: by and large I think you’ve done a nice job of expressing your views. However, thus far I don’t see where you’ve provided any reasons for thinking that your views are correct. I’m open to hearing your argument though, so if you provide one I’ll take a look at it.
One thing I’m not clear on is your claim that the ‘whole quilt’ of nature is normative. To say that something is normative is to say that it ought to be, or that it should be, or that it conforms to some standard. But aren’t there things that you oppose (rape and genocide, for example) because they are immoral? If so, then what sense does it make to say that everything in nature is normative?
Finally, you state that: “I take away from Johnson that he is not arguing as TrueProgressive would have us believe that â€œNatureâ€ should have species depart from heterosexual pairings/mating.â€ Rather, his point is simply that if Nature or the world itself exhibits â€œQueer(ness),â€ then why should we accept an ecological mandate as humans that suggests â€œQueerâ€ is somehow unnatural?”
Keep in mind that Johnson doesn’t appear to believe that ecological mandates exist at all, much less that there is any sort of ecological mandate suggesting that it is unnatural to be queer. By contrast, I gave my reasons for thinking that at least some ecological mandates do exist. If you have trouble finding the place in one of my previous posts where I provide these reasons, let me know and I’ll provide them again.
Thank you for your time.
Anne – thank you for your reply. I agree with so much of what you have said and I think I may have misapplied the word “balance” in my comment. I believe that systems may never have been in a truly “balanced” state (and balance may be something we apply to understand conditions), but are always, in evolutionary pull, chaotic and ever transforming, complete with micro-level breakpoints and systemic shifts. What that “pull” might be, specifically, I have no idea, but I agree with you wholeheartedly, that even if we don’t screw it up, there are no guarantees. I have appreciated all your posts — very insightful.
TrueProgressive — Hello TrueProgressive.
I feel as though you make a lot of assumptions about what others are thinking when you put forth an argument or rebuttal, which I infer as you having significant depth of thought and a love of debate as well. It is not your original post I disagree with. In fact, you have a strong claim and you have a great deal of evidence that makes sense to me. However, it appears to me in your subsequent posts that you make a number of assumptions about Johnson’s thinking that might rest between the lines of what he actually states, and then report your assumptions about his thinking as his original thought or statement(s). I saw that (again, just my own perception) of your rebuttals to other posts and comments. When this happens (might be classified as a “Missing the Point” fallacy), it is tricky for the other person to navigate in a debate and the result is frustration and few opportunities for potential agreement.
Here’s what I mean. It is important to note that I am not stating that I am “correct” (your words, not mine) about anything of much significance; merely that I read Johnson’s article and feel I understood and have some appreciation of his viewpoint(s). I don’t think I really need “proof” of that interpretation or understanding. My claim has little significance other than I appreciate his work. I also feel in one of your rebuttals to Anne, that you may have missed the point — my interpretation of your comment.
However, if I were to comment on what I believe is strong evidence to Johnson’s claim that contributed to my appreciation, I would have to say that because “Nature” exhibits “queer” behavior, to dub human “queer” behavior as “unnatural” — which social/historical analysis has documented became evident beginning in the 17th century, makes little sense to me.
I also do not state in my comment that I believe Johnson supports the notion of a mandate at all (again you assert I believe this when I never stated that at all — thus you have missed my point); in fact I state my understanding is that Johnson questions why we should accept a mandate at all that suggests “Queer is unnatural.”
If I, too, have misunderstood your comments, I apologize. Thank you for your reply!
Thank you TrueProgressive! I really appreciate the critical analysis of this article. I was a little baffled by the “ecological mandates” thing as well….it’s as if we should never try to learn from nature.
Honestly, as a gay man, I am SO SO tired of all this “postmodernist” shit.
I’m tired of gay liberation being co-opted by stuffy academics whose main interest is in opposing the formation of any possible “metanarrative” as well as “deconstructing” the already marginal histories of the left.
Alex ~ I’m a queer poet, writer, moto-biker) and neither fish nor foul myself (pardon me for torturing yet another nature metaphor!). I can neither swim nor fly ~ not in the American straight mental ghetto of self-serving “either/or” Puritanism, NOR in its identical mirror opposite — the equally dichotomized Gay Mental Ghetto. In contrast to both of those, YOUR world view, self-view and “out-of-the-box” embrace of complexity is a delight. What blows my mind most â€“ you’re not “in reaction” to our culture’s cartoon stuckness. Instead you’re flowing along a different path entirely. Thank you.
I loved the article and the way that its been shaped to encourage us to think about the myth meaning of “natural”. I believe that “nature” not only includes human or animal, it also includes everything a live, everything on earth. However, I believe that gays and lesbian should not refer to be unnatural, they changed because of the environment they live in not because the natural. First of all, lets think about what natural includes? What should be included under the definition and what should not? I think society and genes are the factors that most effect their “unnatural” behavior.