Historical materialism and the remaking of environments

Certainly we continue to have crickets and thunderstorms...and we continue to understand our psyches as driven by natural instincts and passions; but we have no nature in the sense that these forces and phenomena are no longer understood as outside, that is, they are not seen as original and independent from the civil order.

(Hardt and Negri 2000:187)

Both "metabolism" and "circulation" have long conceptual and material histories. "Circulation" gained wide currency after William Harvey's postulation of the double circulation of blood in the body. Movement, flux and conduits rapidly thereafter became formative metaphors that would shape radically new visions of and practices for acting in the world. The concept of "metabolism" arose in the early nineteenth century, particularly in relationship to the material exchanges in the body with respect to respiration. It became extended later to include material exchanges between organisms and the environment as well as the bio-physical processes within living (and non-living or decaying) entities. For example, in the writings of Jacob Moleschott (1857) and Justus von Liebig (1840; 1842), metabolism denoted not only the exchange of energy and substances between organisms and the environment, but the totality of biochemical reactions in a living thing. In fact, von Liebig's analysis turned organisms into living processes, gave them a history-as-process. Interestingly enough, von Liebig, like Edwin Chadwick, had taken the temporal/spatial separation of spaces of production and spaces of consumption through the emergence of long-distance trade and the process of urbanization (what von Liebig called the "metabolic rift") as the pivotal causes of the decline in the productivity of agricultural land on the one hand, and the problematic accumulation of excrement, sewage and garbage in the city on the other. For them, the "unsustainability" of nineteenth-century forms of urbanization was, as it is today, directly related to the spatio-temporal organization of metabolic flows and circuits. With this view of metabolism as ecological-historical process, and combined with Darwin's equally historical-metabolic views of the biological world, and Lyell's theories of the world's geological reconstruction, historical-geographical materialism could mobilize the concept of metabolism, neither as just an organic analogy to the social order (see Padovan 2000) nor as a mere metaphor to be transposed onto society, but as the very foundation of and lasting condition for the social.1

In social theory, the concept of metabolism was introduced in an ontological and epistemological framework in the early Marxist formulations of historical materialism. In its most general sense, materialism asserts that both origin and development of what exists is dependent on nature and "matter". Or, in other words, a certain physical Reality exists that is prior to thought, and to which thought must be related or interlinked (although it can never be identical to the Real) (Foster 2000). As Roy Bhaskar argued, "neither thought nor language form a realm of their own, they are only manifestations of actual life" (Bhaskar 1979:100).2 Karl Marx's historical materialism was arguably the first coherent attempt to theorise the internal metabolic relationships that shape the transformations of the earth's surface and make and remake the social and physical world. In Grundrisse, Capital and, in particular, The German Ideology, Marx insisted on the "natural" foundations of social development (see also Hughes 2000):

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relationship to the rest of nature.The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men...[M]en must be in a position to live in order to be able to "make history" .The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.

This environmental "production" process is conceived in the broadest possible sense. It refers to the metabolic process that is energized through the fusion of the physical properties and creative capacities of humans with those of non-humans. For Marx, this is what defines the act of "labouring", i.e. the purposeful metabolic process intended to produce and reproduce (human) life. Production is an organic process in the first instance, similar (but not reducible or identical) to the act of producing things new by other organic and non-organic "actants". What differentiates human actants from others is their organic capacity to wish differentially, to imagine different possible futures, to act differentially in ways driven and shaped by human drives, desires, and imaginations (as distinct from those of rivers, viruses, cows, or tulips). This form of acting differentiates human acting from other active "moments" or "agents" in the production and transformation of "environments". As Marx puts it:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee in the construction of her cells puts to shame many an architect. But what distinguishes the worst architects from the best of bees is this, that the architect arises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.

Labouring is therefore nothing other than engaging the "natural" physical and mental forces and capabilities of humans in a metabolic physical-material process with other human and non-human actants and conditions. It is through the process of "transposition of labour power into human organism" (Marx 1971:323) that this metabolic process is mobilized:

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand.

These products of transformed nature and embodied "dead" labour take on a thing-like character, which, like any other actant, is enrolled again in subsequent assemblages. In fact, "[A]ny product can take on a 'life' of its own, and may come to dominate the living labour that makes it. The 'nature of things' is indeed to become non-human actors" (Kirsch and Mitchell 2004:23). If the act of labouring, broadly conceived, constitutes a socio-ecological process, then the particular relational frame through which this labour is socially organized has to become an integral part of understanding the continuous (retaking of what we can now discern as socio-natural entities (Castree 2000; 2002). The circulation of goods, or of entities, is evidently directly associated with the notion of metabolism, which involves precisely such a process of transformation-in-movement. In other words, metabolic circulation fuses together physical dynamics with the social regulatory and framing conditions set by the historically specific arrangement of the social relations of appropriation, production, and exchange—in other words, the mode of production. The things, the products used by labour in production always enter the metabolic processes as already configured assemblages, collectives, networks that, in turn, through socio-metabolic circulatory processes, mobilize new human and non-human "actants" and produce new assemblages or collectives. As Timothy Luke (1999:39) notes:

Marx can be seen as an extended critique of Latour's sense of collectivization, inasmuch as he uses the notion of the commodity to describe the association of humans and nonhumans. Since Marx's examination of the commodity form under capitalism looks at ways in which human labor is mixed with nonhuman things to create value, much of his analysis is a careful study of who dominates whom in the process of such collectivization, with commodification leading to the endless "co-modification" of human and nonhuman beings in both nature and culture. These ties now define coevolution.

These "collectives" are those proliferating objects that Donna Haraway calls "cyborgs" (Haraway 1991) or that Bruno Latour refers to as "quasi-objects" (Latour 1993); these hybrid, part social, part natural—yet deeply historical and thus produced— objects/subjects are intermediaries that embody and express nature and society and weave networks of infinite liminal spaces. These assemblages, like commodities, are simultaneously real, like nature; narrated, like discourse; and collective, like society (Latour 1993:122). They take on cultural, social, and physical forms and enter social and ecological processes in new and transformed manners. The city, in its parts and as a whole, is a kaleidoscopic socio-physical accumulation of human/non-human imbroglios. In the production of these assemblages and entanglements, the figures of "metabolism" and of "circulation" take centre stage in a historical materialist and dialectical account. In the next section, we shall delve deeper into the origin and mobilization of "metabolism" and "circulation" within historical materialism.

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