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This book begins and ends with short reflections on biblical evocations of dust. It starts with the dramatic pronouncement to Adam in Genesis 3, “dust thou art … and to dust thou shalt return” and finishes with the description in the Gospel of John of Jesus writing in the dust. Nathan Lyons, a talented early-career theologian, offers arresting readings of these classic passages, thus framing the book as a piece of creative theological reasoning in a Christian mode. The book, however, is also a work of imaginative and speculative metaphysics, and one that intersects directly with a matter of concern that has long occupied a prominent place among geographers. Lyons central contention is that nature is cultural and culture natural all the way down. With Bruno Latour (an occasional but important interlocutor), Lyons seeks to move beyond the bifurcation of nature and culture that in Latour’s now famous assessment characterises the modern constitution. In this, of course, Lyons might be regarded as coming rather late to the party, something he acknowledges through a survey of work, recent and not so recent, across multiple disciplines that has pursued a cognate goal. But it would be a mistake to read the book as simply an exercise in ‘academic theology plays catch up’.
What is strikingly novel are Lyons efforts to articulate and ground attempts to overcome the nature-culture binary by way of theories of signs found in the writings of three medieval and early modern thinkers—John Poinsot (1589-1644), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464)—or “a friar, a saint and a mystic” as Lyons describes them. The scholastic semiotics of these three figures provides Lyons with the metaphysical means to find even in the very dust a physio-semiosis, or genuine exchange of signs. As Lyons points out, this is not without modern analogues based on a wide array of philosophical starting points and approaches. Arguments with at least a family resemblance can be found, for example, in the recent revival of panpsychism or in work on the new materialism or on speculative realism. Lyons retrieval and creative re-working of medieval metaphysics is offered as another (and perhaps surprising) way to disrupt the modern settlement that insists on culture as something that exists over, against and entirely distinct from nature.
This, at any rate, indicates something of the wide canvas on which Lyons paints. But it does not do justice to his careful and creative reconstructions of the metaphysics that lie at the heart of his book and on which he rests his conclusions. Lyons divides his book into two parts and builds slowly towards his argument that there are indeed signs in the dust. The first and shorter section is concerned with the expansive character of human signification that resists a strict division between natural and cultural, or material and mental, signs. The theory of signs developed by the Iberian philosopher and Thomist, John Poinsot—not least through his concept of customary sign—is used to articulate the claim that “the meaningfulness of human life is a biocultural production.” (p. 19) Thomas Aquinas provides an account of Trinitarian relations that allows Lyons to suggest that C. S. Pierce spoke more securely than he knew, or perhaps intended, when he drew a direct parallel between his triadic account of semiotics (signifier, object and interpretant) and the Christian idea of God as three-in-one. In this Thomist-inspired view of the Trinity, there is in God an infinite and absolute “cultural nature,” that “sustains, rather than terminates, the creaturely semiosis that participates in it.” (p. 58) The divine nature consists, that is, in an infinite plenitude of signification. Nicholas of Cusa then allows Lyons, in the final chapter of part I, to further explore what such participation might mean, not least with respect to querying any strict division between human artifice and unreconstructed nature. Human semiosis becomes not something apart from nature but rather an always incomplete and perspectival but nevertheless real elaboration of an already cultural nature, and an imaging forth of the Divine semiosis that sustains and enables it.
Part II turns from human signification to the semiotics of the living and, finally, the non-living. The first two chapters build on the idea of biosemiosis, or the use and interpretation of signs among non-human animals, found in the writings of all three of Lyons’ scholastic metaphysicians. Although they each share the assumption that humans, as rational animals, are (among other material creatures—angels being immaterial) uniquely capable of intellection, they also, as Lyons has it, “understand the sensory and perceptual capacities of [non-human] organisms as semiotic powers.” (p. 87) They were not, in other words, proto-Cartesians. In allowing that non-human animals naturally participate in the making and interpretation of signification, animal culture emerges as a meaningful category. Lyons extends this argument by engaging closely with the French philosopher Félix Ravaisson’s neo-Aristotelian (or neo-scholastic) arguments about the formation of habit. Building on this, he then interacts with recent work in evolutionary theory that suggests habit, as a kind of culture based on customary signification (after Poinsot), has significantly shaped the evolution of life. This permits Lyons to argue that “nature itself is cultural to some degree because over time its form is influenced by the semiotically executed habits of organisms.” (p. 128) It is worth noting here that Henri Bergson, mentioned by Lyons in passing, is one of the interesting lines of connection that run from pre-modern semiotics through Ravaisson and on to the so-called extended evolutionary synthesis.
From here Lyons digs deeper into nature, as it were, and looks for signs in non-living matter. He acknowledges just how difficult, and even apparently absurd, that task seems, not least because beyond the albeit hazy margins of life there is surely no interpretant to complete the semiotic loop. One might think a theologian would appeal to a divine interpreter to come to their aid, but this is not the route Lyons takes (at least not directly). Instead, he turns once again to Aquinas and works patiently with Thomas’s difficult concept of intentions in the medium. What Aquinas’s intentional species suggest is a kind of natural code, structural pattern or information that passes through, and is impressed on, material media. While Poinsot’s semiotics allows Lyons to argue that this constitutes a kind of virtual semiosis, Aquinas enables him to push further and suggest that it is, in a minimal but real sense, semiosis proper. There is even in dust, then, the glimmerings of a kind of proto-cognition and a hint of participation in a kind of knowing. This summary, while drastically short-circuiting Lyons’ careful re-examination of scholastic metaphysics, gives some indication of why Lyons can concur with Latour that “signification is the property of all agents” and that “existence and signification are synonyms.” (cited on p. 171)
Lyons’ final substantive chapter makes an argument about why material culture can be thought of as a good and necessary condition for certain types of knowledge and meaning. The chapter explores a pre-modern affirmation of the goodness of matter and the benefits due to a “detour through the real” (p. 175) not available to, for example, immaterial angelic beings. Here things are drawn to a conclusion leaving the reader with much to ponder. In the end, the sheerly metaphysical character of this book leaves unaddressed the possible political and ethical outworking of the arguments made. It would be unfair to expect otherwise given what Lyons has managed to achieve. He is certainly aware, as some of his footnotes in particular indicate, of the ethical and political prospects (and pitfalls) of querying at depth (and, one might say, in the heights) any fixed nature-culture binary. Nevertheless, if we concede that any practical politics, or political ecology, comes with certain metaphysical presumptions ineradicably built in then, reversing the equation, Lyons book might be read as an effort towards an affirmative politics of the good in an overlooked metaphysical key.
Reading Lyons book in the context of discussions conducted within the broad remit of geography could go in numerous directions. As a historian of geography, Lyons book struck me as an interesting supplement to Clarence Glacken’s classic account of reflections on European ideas of nature-culture, Traces of the Rhodian Shore (1967). Glacken’s magisterial survey of European thought makes no mention of Poinsot or Cusa but does devote several pages to a careful investigation of some of Thomas Aquinas’s reflections on nature as necessarily bearing multitudinous signs of the inexhaustible image of its Creator. There are hints here of Lyons much more elaborate reworking of Aquinas, Cusa and Poinsot. Among other things, both Glacken and, in a much more focused way, Lyons point to the possibility of a different and productive genealogy of creative work on nature-culture than the one that narrates ‘western thought’ in entirely negative and rather monolithic terms.
As well as facilitating a different telling of the history of ‘Western’ metaphysics, Lyons argument might be put into conversation with cultural geographers creatively engaged with re-conceptualising nature-culture relations. Examples include the work of Susan Ruddick, Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff. Ruddick (2017) in particular provides an interesting counterpoint to Lyons in her use of a Peircean account of semiosis to supplement and develop a neo-Spinozian metaphysics that emphasises communication-rich “allegiances” between non-living and living “becomings”. In her recent article, Ruddick notices in passing Spinoza’s retention of a pre-modern scholastic account of occult forces operative in nature but says nothing further about them. Lyons might be provocatively read alongside Ruddick as arguing that medieval accounts of semiosis provide all that Peirce might supply, but with a richer and more explicit metaphysical accompaniment. Spinoza’s thought, too, might be re-cast in light of Lyons’ metaphysical reconstructions as a venture ignorant of a forgotten more than explicitly refused or refuted Thomistic metaphysics. Spinoza may have been kicking against, as Ruddick puts it, “a theological image of an anthropomorphic deity who acted outside of nature and intervened in events as an act of Providence.” (p. 122) But this theological image is regarded by some historical theologians as a vigorous and influential rejection of the Thomistic conception of Creator-creature relations. Spinoza, in light of this history of intra-theological dispute, might be said to be reacting to a reaction, making it possible to suggest that he missed resources an earlier metaphysics afforded for a more adequate ontology and associated ethics. The thorough-going immanentism of Spinoza and his intellectual heirs, in rejecting any and all conceptions of a transcendent good, arguably struggles to avoid collapse into an inoperable relativism. Perhaps, though here I defer to those better versed in the relevant metaphysics, there is something in the Thomistic account of the good that flows from a combined commitment to freely formed generative and communicative allegiances (á la Ruddick) and a radically transcendent, and so profoundly intimate and creative, Trinitarian semiosis.
Doubtless Lyons own arguments face equally stubborn challenges. One might come from close reflection on what Nigel Clark (2018: 103) has termed “fully inhuman worlds”– those aeons of geological prehistory, billions of galaxies and infinitesimal sub-atomic forces unknown to Lyons’ scholastic philosophers. These worlds apparently exist without any reference or likeness whatever to the nature-culture compositions that include human participants. They seem to indicate a very long “detour through the real” indeed. Might Lyons’ three metaphysicians help us avoid what Clark’s takes to be an Enlightenment hubris that sought to control the uncontrollable – or in some way render all matter comprehensible within a human frame of reference – and, in so doing, “greatly exacerbate[d] our vulnerability.” (p. 106) An attempt to address this issue here would be hubris indeed. Instead I will simply conclude by commending Lyons elegantly-argued book to geographers interested in “the ecological crisis [as an] ontological crisis” (Ruddick 2017: 119) and recommend searching with Lyons for creative answers to these important, even urgent, metaphysical and ethical conundrums.
Clark, N (2018) Can we have our nature-culture dichotomy back, please? in Rapport, N and Wardle, H (eds) An Anthropology of the Enlightenment: Moral Social Relations Then and Today. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 101–108.
Glacken C J (1967) Traces of the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the end of the Eighteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ruddick S M (2017) Rethinking the subject: reimagining worlds. Dialogues in Human Geography 7: 119–39.