Human Nature

If one function of ideology is to make things that have a history appear natural, then perhaps ‘nature’ is the ideological concept par excellance. On the other hand, if ideology forms a distorted or deceptive image of the real, something like nature is an indispensable correlate to ideology, without which a critique of the latter would be meaningless. This ambivalence is inherent to the concept of nature; for all the conceptual pairings it seems to so naturally elicit—nature/culture, nature/civilization, nature/artifice, nature/humanity—it refuses to be limited to one side of a pair. Nature, as much as ‘nature,’ is the ultimate colonizing force: it appears where it is least expected, even—I should say especially—when it was thought to have been banished. Not only is this as true of nature as it is of ‘nature’; more, the seemingly obvious distinction here between the reality and the concept of nature is dangerously unstable. Nothing is more natural than the unnatural.

If one function of ideology is to make things that have a history appear natural, then perhaps ‘nature’ is the ideological concept par excellance. On the other hand, if ideology forms a distorted or deceptive image of the real, something like nature is an indispensable correlate to ideology, without which a critique of the latter would be meaningless. This ambivalence is inherent to the concept of nature; for all the conceptual pairings it seems to so naturally elicit—nature/culture, nature/civilization, nature/artifice, nature/humanity—it refuses to be limited to one side of a pair. Nature, as much as ‘nature,’ is the ultimate colonizing force: it appears where it is least expected, even—I should say especially—when it was thought to have been banished. Not only is this as true of nature as it is of ‘nature’; more, the seemingly obvious distinction here between the reality and the concept of nature is dangerously unstable. Nothing is more natural than the unnatural.


The hilarious and thought-provoking Human Nature, with a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (who also wrote the equally hilarious and thought-provoking Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York) is a movie about the pathology of civilization, which is a common enough conceit; but it could equally be said to be a send-up of the idea of civilization itself, as it shows the latter to be a series of ideological justifications that skim along life’s surface while nature goes on about its business undisturbed, and at the same time a send-up of the idea of nature, as it continually mutates and forms itself into civilization, culture, art, and pathology, simultaneously inventing and undermining its own distinction from all of the aforementioned terms. Everything the characters in the movie do is perfectly natural, which is to say it’s often perverse, self-conscious, pretentious, absurd, and petty, and it’s almost always self-defeating.

Dr. Nathan Bronfman is a psychologist whose life’s work and guiding passion is to teach table manners to lab rats. “If I can teach manners to rats,” he explains, “then maybe I can teach them to humans, and maybe the world will be a little safer.” Presumably manners don’t come naturally to humans, then, but it really seems unnatural to see rats holding chairs for each other and selecting the proper fork for the salad. But nothing could be more natural than the system of stimulated responses Bronfman uses to teach the rats; after being shocked enough times grabbing for the wrong fork, a rat quite naturally gravitates toward the correct one. If nature can be manipulated in such a way that manners are the result, Bronfman reasons, then there is hope for the human race. Nature must be doubled back onto itself, and the result of such an operation is civilization. What experimental behaviorism demonstrates, above all, is that domestication is eminently natural.

Bronfman’s upbringing would seem to have been an influence on his choice of work. His overbearing mother drilled into him the maxim, “Never wallow in the filth of instinct.” Without civilization, she insists, we’d be just like the apes. In other words, human nature is just the same as any other old nature, something we must rise above. But if there is no difference between human nature and ape nature, how did we become civilized to begin with? The notion of human nature is rendered problematic once we reflect that, if our ‘nature’ is our specific difference, then that difference is, more or less, to be creatures of culture, which is to say creatures who modify our nature and thus come to have an idea like ‘nature’ to begin with.

If the preadolescent Bronfman so much as touched the wrong fork, his mother would send him to bed without his supper. In such a situation, nothing is more natural than to become obsessive about table manners; after all, Bronfman learned his manners the same way his rats do, by responding to repeated stimuli in a predictable manner. But Bronfman is contemptuously dismissive when his shrink suggests his childhood had anything to do with his choice of career: “Isn’t that a tad convenient, Wendell? You can’t reduce my passion to ‘childhood.’”

Bronfman is, quite naturally, disgusted by his girlfriend, a nature writer named Lila Jute (author of a book called Fuck Humanity), when he discovers that she regularly shaves her entire body, which in its natural state is covered with fur. As ‘unnatural’ as this irruption of nature on Lila’s body is, this is small beer compared to the most unnatural character in the movie, Puff, who lives in the woods and thinks he’s an ape; or anyway, comes to think, in retrospect, that when he lived in the woods he was an ape. As Puff later tells a congressional committee, “I was an ape. I wasn’t really sure what type. Apes don’t think in terms of type. Apes don’t even know they’re apes…” If apes aren’t species beings who think in terms of type, this is as much as to say that nature knows nothing of nature; to an ape, the Empire State building, the atom bomb, and The New York Review of Books are just as natural (or as unnatural) as a ripe banana, although perhaps a bit less interesting.

Bronfman and Lila find Puff while out hiking one day. Bronfman tolerates these excursions into nature in order to keep Lila happy; in one of the funniest lines of the movie, when she gets angry with him for nervously laughing along with his mother as she denigrates nature, he protests “No, honey, I love nature! It’s my favorite!” Bronfman actually mostly hates nature, at least in the form of trees, babbling brooks, and hairy, sweaty, unruly instinct, but of course nothing could be more natural than his feigning a love of the wild in order to preserve his sex life.

Initially, Puff is devoid of language, but, using the methods he has honed working with his rats, Bronfman quickly transforms him into a fully-fledged man of the world, with the help of an electrical collar that is fixed around his neck. Puff is initially recalcitrant, but after seeing Bronfman and his assistant Gabrielle have sex in the laboratory, as unashamed as if Puff were a dog, he makes rapid progress. As he later tells the assembled Congressmen with a whimsically arched eyebrow, “To use the vernacular, gentlemen, I wanted me some of that.” Puff figures that learning the ways of civilized humanity is the best way to get out of his glass pen in Bronfman’s laboratory and get laid.
Being civilized, according to Bronfman, means “When in doubt, don’t ever do what you really want to do.” Accordingly, civilizing Puff for the most part involves repeatedly shocking him when he tries to hump waitresses, Lila, pictures of women, or anyone or anything else. Getting laid, Puff soon learns, mostly involves not getting laid. Now fully civilized (Bronfman remarks “He’s awfully well-read for someone who’s only been literate for a month”), Puff learns the intricate game that is perhaps what is most natural to human beings: deferring gratification in order to get what we want, acting against out desires, against our nature, in order to satisfy our deepest drives.
Although Bronfman is the most civilized of the three main characters in the sense of cultural refinement, he is also the most natural; everything he does is explainable by lust or pathology, covered with a veneer of half-baked idealism. Because Bronfman always has a selfish motive lurking behind his actions, he could be said to be perfectly natural: despite his upbringing, he is entirely motivated by instinct. Perhaps he truly pities Puff when he finds him; he ponderously muses, “That poor man…never to read Moby-Dick or marvel at a Monet!” But his insecurities are so strong that they motivate even his most ostensibly altruistic actions. He is thus demonstrably devoid of one supposed feature of the civilized human being: he acts entirely out of interest.
In any case, Lila eventually kidnaps Puff and forcibly returns him to the wild, retraining him to be an ‘animal’ with the help of the shock collar that remains around his neck. When Bronfman tracks them down, Puff kills him, but Lila insists she take the rap so Puff can return to the forest after telling his story to a congressional committee.
As painfully unnatural as the evening-jacketed, wine-sipping, opera-loving Puff must appear to us, nothing, of course, is more unnatural than a human being living in a forest alone and naked, without human company and unable to speak. When Puff decides to return to the forest, it can only be as a kitschy gesture calculated to make a point. He manages to capture the public imagination by appealing to our sanctimonious nostalgia for what we imagine to be a more natural lifestyle. Even the Congressmen are visibly moved, although Puff manages to shame them with a supercilious sneer when they titter at the juicier parts of his story. And Puff himself is carried away by the nobility of his gesture, captivated by an image of himself as no ape could ever be.
Puff marches out of the congressional hearing and trudges down the road until he reaches the path to his former home, shedding his clothes as he goes. However, as soon as the crowd of supporters who has followed him to the edge of the woods disperses, Puff sneaks back out into Gabrielle’s waiting car and the two ride off into the proverbial sunset. The naked and shivering Puff immediately demands some clothing, and announces that he needs to go to a restaurant. Puff forsakes nature for the ultimate trinity of natural needs: food, shelter, and sex, none of which are in abundant supply in his forest idyll.
What Human Nature shows is both the inescapability and the incoherence of nature, both as a concept and as a supposed thing-in-itself, if it’s even possible to tell the two apart. It’s not, of course, but the distinction remains indispensable. As that which is not a concept but nevertheless underlies all conceptuality, nature infects every concept just as much as it disappears at the first attempt to define it. In that case, the concept ‘nature’ is perhaps the fundamental concept, even as, in erasing the distinction between concept and reality, it undermines both naturalness and conceptuality. Nature needs something that is unnatural in order to appear at all, but having done so it immediately spills over into the unnatural, rendering it natural, thus effacing itself. Because apes don’t think in terms of type, they are not conservationists.
That is why, as the basis of any social critique, ‘nature’ is always an ideology. And ideology is, of course, perfectly natural. But the function of critique is to interrupt ideology, even if the latter cannot be ultimately banished from our lives any more than nature can. In order for that to be possible, it would have to be possible to finally disambiguate the two, and that is of course not possible. But without a critique of ideology, this very indistinguishability would not become apparent. If the critique of ideology is itself ideology, then, that does not render it any less necessary. Nature is necessary, impossible, and in any case unavoidable. But it mocks those who seek it in intuition or mysticism, or who promote it to a political fetish. The only adequate position toward nature (which is not the same as to say natural phenomena or the environing world) is not one of worship, veneration, protectiveness, affirmation, or contempt, but rather ruthless critique. That is above all because, as Heraclitus recognized, “Nature loves to hide.”