The Difference that Nature Makes: Empire and Natural History in Contemporary Political Theory
31 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2013
Date Written: 2013
In the last decade political theorists have become profoundly interested in the history of empire. In a recent review of the field, Jennifer Pitts argues that empire is a pivotal focal point in the development of political theory, particularly in tracing the extent to which modern liberalism has developed alongside British, French, and American imperial legacies. Drawing upon several areas of scholarly salience (e.g., the history of political thought, post-colonialism, globalization, and international law), Pitts exhorts theorists to engage with the imperial projects linked to contemporary global poverty, violence, and ecological crisis. Yet despite sustained attention to the economic, military, and legal dynamics of imperialism, Pitts neglects to offer a resounding example of historical works engaged with empire and ecology. Reducing the role of nature to legal inequalities concerning resource extraction, there is an impression in her account that nature was an ancillary concern of empires, second to the larger dynamics of state sovereignty. Upon further investigation, it becomes evident that existing literature on political theory and empire similarly neglects nature and the environment as crucial, intervening concepts.
Contemporary political theory’s interest in empire seems bounded by its encounter and current fascination with liberalism. What role then, if any, does nature have in political theory’s turn to empire? In this paper, I engage the status of empire and nature in political theory, pointing to the difference that turning to the early modern Spanish encounter with nature makes in studying the history of political thought. I argue that in the early accounts of Spanish ethnographers, cartographers, and natural philosophers with the New World environment, one finds the origins of crucial debates over the boundaries of nature, society, and the formation of modern empire. Nature was not so much the setting, as it was the means through which modern imperial projects were made possible. My contention is that greater attention to the experiences emerging from Spanish naturalist writings contributes to further reconstructing many of the debates found at the origins of early modern political thought. Striking amongst these debates is the boundary between nature and society as marking the rise of modern civilization and science. The value added to political theory by turning towards these fields consists of broadening Enlightenment metanarratives on the origins of modernity, while carving out a space for first-hand accounts on early modern changes in nature-society interaction.
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