Reading Rousseau in the Anthropocene

March 17, 2017

Danielle DiNovelli-Lang

I’m a critical environmental anthropologist, which means I make my living by having serious doubts about every term in this aspirational self-description. Writing and teaching under such a sign has always been hard, but it’s gotten even harder lately, for painfully obvious reasons. For example, this semester, for the second time, I am teaching a midlevel course for undergraduates called “Theories of Human Nature.” As with so many anthropology courses at my university, the title is deceptive: instead of theories of human nature, my innocent charges are stuck with a relentless series of stories demonstrating that there is no such thing as human nature and that any effort to appeal to it inevitably entails the denigration of many would-be humans and the degradation of what is left of nature in the name of some dubious onto-political cause or other (see Haraway 2007; Soper 1995). By the end of the semester, I would normally hope my students would have become as suspicious of the word “human” as they are of the word “nature,” and downright outraged to hear them juxtaposed in an argument.

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