Culture and technics (1965)

RP 189 () / Article

The word culture entails a value judgement, and to a certain extent it relates to an axiological type of content. [*]When used with reference to human culture, its primary meaning is metaphorical, since it looks to the techniques of grain production and gardening for a paradigm of improvement and transformation, a paradigm that might have been found in a domain closer to human reality, notably in the example of animals transformed by breeding and farming. [1 ]

But perhaps this metaphorical detour points to a primary capacity or artfulness [habileté], along with a certain dissimulation, that has always underlain the notion of culture. We see that the animals bred or ‘raised’ [élevés] by man are bred above all for man; the improvement of their species is more a matter of their adaptation than of their being generally ‘raised up’ [élévation]; it may be accompanied by aspects of degeneration, by an inability to reproduce, and by fragility, which make for unflattering comparisons between animals ‘raised’ by man and their wild kin; the integrity of the species is diminished in the practice of husbandry [élevage] and other practices conducive to taming and domestication [dressage] – such as the castration of males. But we must understand that these forms of deficiency and degradation also exist in cultivation techniques [techniques de culture]; the grafted plant, producing enormous fruits or double flowers, is often as much a monster as the fattened bull, the selectively bred dairy cow, or any other sort of hypertelic dysfunction exploited as a biological specialization, whose interest lies in its productive features.

Whether we are dealing with cultivation or husbandry, the species’ initial adaptation to its environment is broken, if not at least warped; a second adaptation is made, through technical means and in a technical environment [milieu technique], making the species dependent on the human technician: grafted rosebushes die without the gardener, and racing dogs need constant care. Cultivated species, the species raised by man, need continual technical assistance, and this is because they are artefacts; they are products of technicity. This implicit anthropocentrism, however, is less obvious in horticulture than in animal husbandry; the animal’s loss of autonomy is etched in its anatomy and physiology, in features that mark its degradation more visibly than in their vegetable counterparts, if only because they are intuitively grasped by human life [le vivant humain]; the comparison between the pig and the boar will come out in favour of the wild species, but when it comes to comparing the rosebush with the wild rose a value judgement may lean in the other direction; only the gardener can tell us that the rosebush cannot reproduce by seed, that it dreads the frost, and defends itself poorly against the onslaught of parasites. Cultivation techniques [les techniques de culture], moreover, act primarily on the environment, which is to say on the energy resources at the plant’s disposal over the course of its development, rather than on the plant itself, as a living individual. Such, at least, was the case for the grains cultivated in antiquity; the species’ biological potential was neither diminished nor deformed. Domestication and breeding, by contrast, particularly when accompanied by animal training, presupposes that some action is taken on the living being itself, action that may result in the deprivation of freedom or in debilitating physiological mutilation.

And so we must first and foremost recognize that the notion of culture is taken from a technique [une technique], one that has a great deal in common with animal husbandry, but that differs from it because it depends on action exerted on the living being’s environment [le milieu vital] rather than on the living being itself [le vivant]. When cultivation comes to employ the same procedures as husbandry, it, too, leads to degradation – such as we see in the methods of the specialist gardener, who grafts and prunes, reducing giant trees to tiny dwarfs, or producing varieties that flower all year round without yielding a single fertile seed. We could say that cultivation, the management of the environment, occasions the genesis of a second nature, while breeding detaches itself from any nature, twisting the latter into …