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Home Culture Radioactive lakes, video game deserts, ornamental gardens: where the human and the natural merge | Culture

Radioactive lakes, video game deserts, ornamental gardens: where the human and the natural merge | Culture

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In the early hours of Monday, July 16, 1945, a colossal explosion was seen north of Alamogordo, in the desert of New Mexico, United States. It was the first atomic bomb detonated by humans, the so-called Trinity test, a 19 kiloton plutonium-based device that generated the first mushroom cloud in history. When, at dawn, the team led by physicist Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves arrived at the exact site of the detonation, they discovered that the ground had become “a star-shaped lake of green jade,” according to the description of Magazine Time. The new material, which had crystallized as a result of the interaction of the soil with the explosion, was named trinitite. It is an example of the postnatural: what happens between what we call nature and what we call culture and whose borders are not as clear as we usually think.

“Post-nature is a theoretical framework in which to rethink our relationship with nature in the contemporary moment,” explains the architect and artist Gabriel Alonso, co-founder of the Institute of Post-Natural Studies, a place of creation and thought with physical headquarters in Madrid’s working-class neighborhood. of Usera, although with international activity. There a program of events, exhibitions, publications and training is developed that reaches places of thought where the university academy takes time to reach. Now the Institute publishes the book The postnatural condition (Cthulhubooks), a beautiful introduction to this type of thinking, which in its title winks at The postmodern condition by Jean-François Lyotard.

Members of the Institute of Postnatural Studies. From left to right, Gabriel Alonso, Yuri Tuma, Emma Prats, Karol Muñozcano, Matteo Guarnaccia, Clara Benito (external collaborator), Alicia Sánchez and Pablo Ferreira, in Madrid, on March 3, 2024.Samuel Sanchez

“The postnatural is an invitation to make problematic the idea of ​​a static nature separated from the human. An invitation to understand nature as a cultural construction,” adds Alonso. In the book, constant reference is made to some of the contemporary thinkers who have dealt with these issues: Bruno Latour, Timothy Morton, Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Vinciane Despret, Dipesh Chakrabarty or the duo formed by Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, among them. others.

The case of the trinite, which can serve as a metaphor for the controversial concept of Anthropocene, speaks of the relationship between the territory and technology at the moment in which human beings create the atomic bomb and become convinced of its apocalyptic condition, of its of self-destruction. “The territory becomes a geology laboratory and a radioactive mineral emerges: it is a witness to the new geology of the Earth in which the natural and the technological no longer have such a clear separation,” says Alonso. It is not the only example given in the book, which functions as a “speculative glossary of terms and images, of stories and subjects.”

Image of video games unearthed in the New Mexico desert by Atari in 1983.
Image of video games unearthed in the New Mexico desert by Atari in 1983.Provided by the Institute of Postnatural Studies

For example, a curious relationship between nature and culture occurred in 1815 when the Tambora volcano erupted, in what is now Indonesia, and its explosion caused the famous “year without summer.” Some writers of the time confined themselves to the country mansion Villa Diodati, in Switzerland, due to bad weather conditions. Among them were Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and John Polidori, who entertained themselves by telling stories of Gothic horror. From that meeting (from that eruption) works such as Frankensteinby Shelley, the The Vampireby Polidori, precursor of Dracula.

Another post-natural connection occurs in the Gamma Radiation Reproduction Field in Japan, where plants are exposed to radioactive cobalt to study their mutations. Plastiglomerates in which stones, mollusk shells or coral fragments gather on plastic lost in the sea. Dubai’s complex of 300 artificial islands. Devil’s Mountain, near Berlin, where a forest was planted on mountains of rubble (the equivalent of four hundred thousand buildings) from Allied bombing in World War II.

'The World': artificial islands in Dubai.
‘The World’: artificial islands in Dubai.Provided by the Institute of Postnatural Studies

Or, without going any further, in any ornamental garden. “The very idea of ​​a garden is an artificial construction that idealizes the order and harmony of nature, linked to aesthetic and economic interests,” says Alonso. Sometimes they are an architecture representing power: the first Egyptian gardens, which appear painted in tombs from 1500 BC, were built to show the territories that had been colonized. Or, anyway, when the Atari company, in 1983, buried millions of cartridges of its video game ET the Extraterrestrialwhich was a flop, in the Alamogordo desert, New Mexico, the same place where the Trinity test was conducted!

romantic nature

If nature is not what we think it is… when did it start to be that way? Postnatural theorists believe that the turning point came with the arrival of modernity and scientific and empirical knowledge, with the Enlightenment that established the idea of ​​progress, and humanism that placed human beings (at least certain beings) human) in the center. With the consolidation of these projects, in the 17th and 18th centuries, reality began to be ordered and organized in different disciplines, with the help of a series of institutions: the museum of natural sciences, the botanical garden, the encyclopedia… It is the time of great discoveries and cabinets of curiosities that bring together pieces from other latitudes. “This whole process manages to separate nature from us and, what’s more, allows nature to be seen as a mere place of resource extraction, very much in line with the economic project of the Industrial Revolution. We believe that we must begin to blur this idea of ​​compartmentalization,” says Alonso.

Romantic landscape painted by Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886).
Romantic landscape painted by Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886).Bruce M. White (Courtesy of the Institute of Postnatural Studies)

During Romanticism, through literature or painting, an idealized vision of the natural was generated, based on the beauty and grandeur of landscapes, where the sensation of the sublime, theorized by Kant, is also based. what the human being is insignificant, which produces admiration, but also a certain fear. Storms are the classic example. “There is a great emotional connection with the landscape: if you look at a romantic painting you are not seeing a landscape, but a representation of the human mind, how human psychology and morality are displayed on that landscape,” says Alonso. The natural is related to freedom, with the possibility of connection with inner life, with the escape from economic and social relationships.

The idea of ​​the sublime also does not fit very well with current ecological challenges. “From a contemporary ecology it is not useful, because it paralyzes: if you think about the climate crisis from that perspective, you see a problem so gigantic that it can cause us to remain immobile,” explains Alonso. That is why the Institute of Postnatural Studies prefers to focus on the concrete, where there may be a possible ecology, which is listed in the examples in the book.

The posthuman other

The postnatural connects with the posthuman. When we think about the posthuman we usually think about the arrival of the technological and its mixture with the human, about the improvement of our capabilities, about the cyborg that Donna Haraway theorizes. In this case, it is a more philosophical way, consisting of the reevaluation of what is human. The philosopher Rosi Braidotti emphasizes overcoming that enlightened humanism that put the human at the center, but a very particular one: white, Western, heterosexual, etc., marginalizing everything else. “What the posthuman proposes in this sense is to reverse this idea of ​​the human,” says Alonso, “what is decided to be human is linked to political issues: there are those who are more human than others, as we see in conflicts, in Loop. Thus, one can criticize the idea of ​​human as something apparently established and democratic,” says Alonso.

Gamma Radiation Reproduction Field, in Japan.
Gamma Radiation Reproduction Field, in Japan.Provided by the Institute of Postnatural Studies

Braidotti proposes a revision of the human, accepting all its diversity and its intimate relationship with other forms of life, with nature, and in that sense, in this erasure of borders, the posthuman connects with the postnatural. If the posthuman criticizes the androcentric vision with the human at the center of the world, the postnatural criticizes the idea of ​​a nature separate from the human. A more organic and interconnected vision of the world is proposed. “These terms are tools of unlearning, of erasing limits,” says Alonso.

What is our connection with nature now? “I remember when my parents told me that we were going to spend a day in the countryside,” recalls Alonso, “I wondered where we were going and where we came from.” As post-natural scholars have found, the separation of nature is perceived more from the city, as is, on the other hand, logical, while people who live and work in the rural world are more aware of the inextricable skein. Country people are post-natural. Now there are events that show this skein, not only climate change, but conflicts in agriculture, ruralist movements, or concern about the emptying of the territory. The economic, social, and relational connections are, however, deeper than we want to believe. “Every time we have breakfast at home, we are activating the field,” concludes Alonso.

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