Metabolism as metaphor and practice

Marx and Engels were among the first to engage the term "metabolism" to grapple with the dynamics of socio-environmental change and evolution (Fisher-Kowalski 1998; 2003). In fact, "metabolism" is the central metaphor for Marx's definition of labour and for analyzing the relationship between human and nature:

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head, and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature. ...[labouring] is the purposeful activity aimed at the production of use-values. It is an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the ever-lasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.

For Marx, this socio-natural metabolism is the foundation of history, a socio-environmental history through which the natures of humans and non-humans alike are transformed (see also Godelier 1986). To the extent that labour constitutes the universal premise for human metabolic interaction with nature, the particular social relations through whom this metabolism of nature is enacted shape its very form. Clearly, any materialist approach insists that "nature" is an integral part of the "metabolism" of social life. Social relations operate in and through metabolizing the "natural" environment, and transform both society and nature. For historical materialism, then, ecology is not so much a question of values, morals, or ethics, but rather a mode of "understanding the evolving material interrelations (what Marx called 'metabolic relations') between human beings and nature.From a consistent materialist standpoint, the question of coevolution" (Foster 2000:10-11) (see also Norgaard 1994; Levins and Lewontin 1985). Foster (2000:15-16) continues to argue that:

[A] thoroughgoing ecological analysis requires a standpoint that is both materialist and dialectical. [A] materialist sees evolution as an open-ended process of natural history, governed by contingency, but open to rational explanation. A materialist viewpoint that is also dialectical in nature (that is, a non mechanistic materialism) sees this as a process of transmutation of forms in a context of interrelatedness that excludes all absolute distinctions. A dialectical approach forces us to recognize that organisms in general do not simply adapt to their environment; they also affect that environment in various ways by affecting change in it.

In other words, non-human entities act in their metabolic exchange—in their "enrolment" as Latour (1993) would call it—with other human and non-human actants. This materialist view is decidedly "constructionist" in the sense that it considers socio-natural processes as historically specific, produced, and contingent. However, it does not foreground a notion of "social construction", as the non-human plays a pivotal and foundational role in the process; it merely evocates the view of nature as "produced".

Marx undoubtedly borrowed the notion of "metabolic interaction" from Justus von Liebig,3 the founding theoretician of modern agricultural chemistry. In contrast to other sociologists avant-la-lettre, like Comte and Spencer, who used the concept of metabolism as an analogy to grapple with social metabolism and for whom "nature offered the gnoseological structures to survey the workings of society" (Padovan 2000:7), Marx, Engels, or Adam Schaffle, mobilized "metabolism" in an ontological manner in which human beings, like society, were an integral, yet particular and distinct, part of nature.

The original German word for metabolism is Stoffwechsel, which translates literally as "change of matter". This simultaneously implies circulation, exchange and transformation of material elements. As matter moves, it becomes "enrolled" in associational networks that produce qualitative changes and qualitatively new assemblages. While the newly produced "things" embody and reflect the processes of their making (though a process of internalization of dialectical relations—see Harvey (1996)), they simultaneously differ radically from their constituent relational parts. For von Liebig, chemical metabolism was a process of "creative destruction" in which the new irrevocably transformed the old. Metabolism as a biochemical process is a contradictory one, predicated upon fusion, tension, conflict, and ultimately transconfiguration, which, in turn, produces a series of new "entities", often radically different from the constituting components, yet equally re-active. Metabolism (with a few rare exceptions), consequently, is a historical process, it has a time arrow. Labour (itself an organic metabolic procedure), then, becomes the organic activity through which this metabolic process is mobilized in a purposeful, human manner by enrolling heterogeneous things into specific metabolic interactions:

Actual labour is the appropriation of nature for the satisfaction of human needs, the activity through which the metabolism between man and nature is mediated.

(Marx 1861-1863)

While every metabolized thing embodies the complex processes and heterogeneous relations of its making at some point in the past, it enters (or becomes enrolled), in its turn and its own specific manner, into new assemblages of metabolic transformation. These dynamic heterogeneous assemblages form a circulatory (although not necessarily closed) process. Under conditions of generalized commodity production, the process takes on the form of circulation of commodities and the circulatory reverse flow of capital (as embodied dead labour, that is past metabolic transformations). This processual metabolism is, according to Foster (2000), central to Marx's political economy and is directly implicated in the circulation of commodities and, consequently, of money: " [t] he economic circular flow then was closely bound up, in Marx's analysis, with the material exchange (ecological circular flow) associated with the metabolic interaction between human beings and nature" (Foster 2000:157-158). Indeed, under capitalist social relations, the metabolic production of use values operates in and through specific control and ownership relations, and in the context of the mobilization of both nature and labour to produce commodities (as forms of metabolized socio-natures) with an eye towards the realization of the embodied exchange value. The circulation of capital as value in motion is, therefore, the combined metabolic transformations of socio-natures in and through the reverse circulation of money as capital under social relations that combine the mobilization of capital, nature or dead labour, and labour power. New socio-natural forms, including the transformation of labour power as living labour, are continuously produced as moments and things in this metabolic process (see Grundman 1991; Benton 1989; 1996; Burkett 1999; Foster 2000). Whether we consider the production of dams, the re-engineering of rivers, the management of biodiversity hotspots, the transfiguration of DNA codes, the cultivation of tomatoes (genetically modified or not) or the construction of houses, they all testify to the particular associational relations through which socio-natural metabolisms are organized (in terms of property and ownership regimes, production or assembly activities, distributional arrangements, and consumption patterns).

Of course, the ambition of classical Marxism was broader than reconstructing the dialectics of historical socio-natural transformations and their contradictions. Historical materialism also questioned and critiqued the process of discursive (or ideological in Marxist terms) purification, of separation and binarization of the world into things "social" and things "natural" that, in Latour's vocabulary, produced the modern "constitution" and derailed the project of becoming "modern" (while, in the process, filling this symbolic void with all manner of socio-natural imbroglios). Historical-geographical materialism as a dialectical (that is, non-teleological) evolutionary (that is, actively produced history) organicism (that is, the unity of the heterogeneous social and the heterogeneous natural) not only addresses the cultural, discursive, "ideological", moral/ethical constructions of nature that were as prevalent in the nineteenth century as they are today, but offered a view of the world that unified the natural and the social while critiquing radically the "modern" separation of "society" from "nature".4 In fact Marx had already prefigured Bruno Latour's clarion call to "re-modernise", to re-connect the two poles that have been severed by modernity, in Grundrisse:

It is not the unity of living and active humanity, the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation, or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and his active existence

However, by concentrating on the labour process as mere social process (as was and is the case for most of modern sociology, Marxist sociology included), some Marxist analysis—particularly during the twentieth century—tended to replicate the very problem it meant to criticize. The "void" referred to above was silenced rather than problematized, ignored rather than taken as the "space" for politics, for struggle, for pre-figuring radical socio-ecological transformation, and realizing alternative socio-natural relations. In other words, while mainstream economics forgot the natural foundations of economic life5 (only to rediscover them recently, under the guise of environmental economics), much of Marxist theory equally became an exclusively "social" theory, rather than a socio-ecological one. Put simply, the over-emphasis on the social relations under capitalism that characterized much of Marxist (and other) social analysis tended to abstract away from or ignore the material and socio-physical metabolic relationships, their phantasmagorical representations and symbolic ordering. This resulted in a partial blindness in the social sciences of the twentieth century to questions of political ecology and socio-ecological metabolisms.

Some recent approaches to the society-nature problematic, such as Actor Network Theory or (political-) ecological theories of a variety of kinds, have provided a new grammatical apparatus that has "profoundly revitalized empirical studies of human-nature-technology remains important that we incessantly raise the question.why are 'things as such' produced in the way they are—and to whose potential benefit" (Kirsch and Mitchell 2004). While a historical-materialist mobilization of metabolism might begin to shed light on the production of socio-natural entities, this has to be fused together with another equally central metaphor and material condition, one that is closely related to metabolism, namely, circulation.

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