Natural Symbols: Some thoughts on interdisciplinary communication

As the weather changes in the fall, I often suffer from a bit of sleep-onset insomnia. Recently at night I’ve found myself reaching for Mary Douglas’s 1970 slip of a book, Natural Symbols, whose high-structuralist insights into cosmology can have a wonderfully somnolent effect. Jokes aside, I’m fascinated by Douglas’s central assertion that symbolism arises out of the body, and it raises lingering questions for me about how illness and health might shape those bodies (and thus, perhaps, those symbols) differently. You’ll see me return to this insight elsewhere, but for now I want to reflect on a recent conference in the field of medical humanities that made me think anew about how certain symbols become “natural” to interdisciplinary research.

The conference, Medical Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Environment, took place at Harvard at the end of September and brought together a strikingly broad array of participants: practicing doctors and nurses, scholars working in fields like geology, anthropology, history, and philosophy, and people like me who work on rhetorics of health and environment in literature. The relationship between medical and environmental humanities is, surprisingly, not all that natural. This is in part because medical humanities usually concerns individual experiences of illness and relationships between practitioners and patients. Even in studies of larger heath structures in sociology and anthropology, insights usually arises out of an accumulation of interactions at the level of the human. Environmental humanities often intentionally retreats from the personal in the face of phenomena like epidemics, natural and manmade disasters, and the concept of the Anthropocene. So while the idea of scale was not explicit in the title of the conference, it was on everyone’s mind.

Something really refreshing happens when you bring together a truly broad cross-section of trainings: people actually have to talk to each other! The reason that we’re all participating in this “Department without Walls” is because we believe in the power of an interdisciplinary space to “refresh” our own disciplines and projects. That refreshment implies stepping “outside.” The doctors in our little gathering reminded us we need to do this with our bodies: as strategy to relieve pain, to refresh our skills of observation, and to confront the seriousness of anthropogenic environmental destruction. In the same way, stepping outside of disciplinary conventions refreshes us mentally. Beyond the sometimes stultifying language of a shared discipline, we move into a more “natural” state of conversation.

But that “natural” state has conventions of its own: common knowledge, habits of speech, metaphors of convenience. Again and again, I noticed, the metaphor we reach for is the sublime. Even in the first weeks of this blog, this is already the second post riffing on that term, and I can guarantee it won’t be the last. The relationship between health, the environment, and the sublime feels “natural,” to us. Indeed, the sublime is almost always conceived of as nature itself. Sometimes explicitly, and sometimes through synonyms like “awe/ful” and “overwhelming,” and almost always through invocations of scale. So many of the talks at the Harvard conference asked us to consider the conceptual tools that might help us assimilate scales beyond the human: tiny micro-organisms or carcinogenic particulates, massive transnational epidemics or geologic scales of time. Does the sublime allow us to “refresh” our appreciation of nature and health (as many in the gathering argued), or does it permanently overwhelm and incapacitate our power to respond (as Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy provocatively suggested)? This is a question worth answering, though beyond the scale(!) of this short piece. But what struck me in the midst of this explicitly debated question was another, unspoken one. Why is the sublime “natural,” as a metaphor to connect us in this conversation? What happens if we insist on historicizing it: taking it out of geologic time and into human time, specifically the age of European colonization?

In 2016 I published a piece about the way novelists used the mathematical sublime to describe the iterative nature of social dysfunction in rural India. That is, they posit the infinite reproduction of behaviors inimical to public health in a way that dramatically overwhelms the protagonists of these novels, at the same time that it is meant to overwhelm the reader. I want to provisionally extend that insight to novels that invoke the dynamic sublime, in which the depth of suffering caused by illness and environmental degradation, or the complexity of how those features emerge in the social landscape, are so profound as to become incomprehensible. Again this feels intuitive, “natural.” But, in order for the sublime to operate here, South Asian novelists also draw on a very problematic, colonial-era trope about the nature of India and challenges to its administration.

Sara Suleri reminds us in The Rhetoric of English in India that India often figured, in the colonial imagination, as a site of incomprehensible complexity. She shows how Edmund Burke, a major theorist of the sublime, also used its tropes in debates about Indian administration.  “[We are] so little acquainted with the Indian details, the instruments of oppression under which the people suffer are so hard to be understood, and even the names of the sufferers are so uncouth and strange to our ears, that it is very difficult to fix upon these subjects.” As Suleri demonstrates India’s scale and complexity made it feel “naturally” sublime to Burke and his fellow lawmakers. I think that harmony, itself, should make us wary of how “natural” the sublime feels as an aesthetic and conceptual tool to describe the Anthropocene.  
So I want to end with a paradox. I know from experience that using the sublime to explain social crises and environmental degradation produces more and better insights for my interlocutors in interdisciplinary settings. It works for my students, too. In this sense, recourse to “natural symbolism” in the sublime fosters a social good. But to do so, it relies on rhetorics whose full consequences, like the changeable fall weather, keep me up at night. Indeed, this postcolonial perspective on the sublime makes me want to rethink its use in all medical humanities contexts, not just those concerned with India. And it prompts me to ask about the historical – as well as embodied – roots of our symbolic language, precisely when it feels most “natural.”

Works Cited

Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. Routledge, 2003.
Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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