Post-Apocalyptic Amazement: Aesthetics and Historical Consciousness in the Natural Contract
Keywords:natural contract, natural-history, Naturgeschichte, amazement, Biosphere II
The intention of my essay is to introduce the concept of “natural-history” (Naturgeschichte) to foster dialogue on the role of art, aesthetics, and historiography in speculative materialism and the wider debates around the Anthropocene. I will present my argument in four steps: The first will be a brief reconstruction of the natural contract as conceived by Michel Serres in Le Contrat naturel (1990). Since in his essay Serres largely dispenses with an aesthetics, in my second step I will argue that at the same time the utopian model of the new, human-built environment, Biosphere 2 (1991) manifested exactly an aesthetics as suggested in legal-theoretical terms by Serres. In the third step, using the example of three films by Ben Rivers, one of which is specifically about Biosphere 2, I will show that the potential of utopian ideals is preserved in their realization only insofar as it is documented in images of transience that may be identified as allegorical representations. This implies a critique of the concept of utopia. In a fourth step, I will therefore show that the natural contract’s utopian body of ideas and the manifestation of the utopian concept in Biosphere 2 can be viewed from a historical-philosophical perspective, with reference to the allegorical representation of the film, as the fate of all nature in which history inscribes itself. To that end, Benjamin’s formulation of “fallen nature” [gefallene Natur] will need to be differentiated here. This selective counter-reading of Serres against Benjamin and the films of Ben Rivers ultimately aims at the restitution of a historical-philosophical argument to the status of art in the natural contract or—in a broader sense—in the Anthropocene; more precisely, it also pursues the conception of an aesthetics of amazement in post-apocalyptic narrative time.