The popular understanding of culture in mid-twentieth-century America and Europe was arguably the symphony orchestra, the ballet, the art museum, and a “national” white, elite etiquette dictating, and explaining, how people should behave. Since the mid-1960s, we have witnessed the production and recognition of a proliferation of “cultures” and “multiculturalisms” within popular culture and informal political and economic institutions. Current usage is replete with compound cultures: counterculture; pop culture; office culture; indigenous culture; urban culture; peasant culture; global culture; “mainstream” culture; and “other-cultures.”

The biological and agricultural roots of the word have also expanded, as illustrated by frequent references to “lab culture” (a living bacterial or fungal assemblage produced by humans in a laboratory); and living “micro-cultures” purposely fostered in yogurt, sourdough, tofu, and other living foods. The latter sense of the word is by no means irrelevant to the prior “social” sense; they are all about the terms of relationship among various elements in complex assemblages of humans, other beings, the Earth, and things. In contemporary vernacular understanding, culture is the ongoing collective sense making of how we be in relation with each other, other living beings, and the living world, and may include everything from microbes to artificial intelligence, virtual worlds, and the “viral” phenomena that sweep across the worldwide web.

In academic contexts, “culture” refers to a process, or a code of practice rooted in a shared understanding of the world(s). It can be an artifact, or a performance that simultaneously creates and conveys meaning through symbolic representations. Social scientists often define it as the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social or national group. Most natural scientists place culture outside their domain of species, spaces, patterns, and processes of the biophysical world, notwithstanding the convergence of social, biological, and physical categories in popular culture and in theoretical breakthroughs across disciplines (complexity, network theory).

Raymond Williams (1973) noted that “culture” described persons, and whole peoples and their practices, whose civilized, aesthetic sensibilities and intellectual focus lifted them above the gritty physicality of farming, manufacturing, and artisanal work. The cultured person transcended nature, Earth, the body, and “animal instincts” through the life of the mind and the “fine arts,” reflecting class overtones and delineating clear boundaries between types of people (Williams 1976 [1983]; Mitchell 2004; Yudice 2007). He cited the origins of the word in Europe as related to “cultivate,” meaning “to work with or upon nature,” a perspective that informed cultural-landscape and cultural-ecology approaches to the crafting of cultural landscapes and the appropriation of nature by humans (Mitchell 2000). This framing of nature-culture connections was dualistic, hierarchical, nonreciprocal, and partial, yet asserted universality. Whether they celebrated or mourned the fact, scholars generally agreed that culture stood outside of nature, transforming it. Contemporary scholars have suggested that the rift between the humanities and sciences, described by C. P. Snow (1964 in Williams 1976 [1983]) as the “two cultures” phenomenon, as well as the current “culture wars” and “science wars,” all rest on a deeper shared assumption of active human cultures working upon the passive raw material of a separate and opposite nature (Ingold 2004; de Sousa Santos 2010).

Three key points have emerged since Williams’s keyword essay that warrant special mention here. The first is the breakdown of the nature-culture binary by feminist, poststructuralist, and science and technology studies (STS) scholars. The second is the convergent development of network, complexity, and relationality theories in the social and natural sciences and in social movements. The third is the new wave of decolonial thought and action that derives from and supports cultures of resistance and culture as resistance in relation to power struggles over land/territory/ecologies and the nature of the world. We present each of these separately and a brief summary of their convergence in current theory and practice.

Since the 1980s, feminist and poststructuralist theorists across disciplines have challenged the nature-culture binary and have called out the power relations inherent in this construct. Poststructural feminist questioning of culture and nature-culture binaries is best epitomized by three critiques of science and culture. Sandra Harding (1986) advanced a critique of scientific notions of objectivity, based on assumptions of rational scientific actors standing outside of culture, creating knowledge about nature. She proposed an epistemology of situated knowledge(s), taking into account the culturally embedded positionality of all knowers. Val Plumwood (1993) criticized the culture of science that purports to govern nature, and directly challenged the dualistic constructs that lie beneath the ecological crisis of reason. Building on Harding and Marilyn Strathern (1987), Donna Haraway (1988, 1991a, 1991b, 1994, 2007) exhorted feminists to blur the lines separating human, animal, and machine, and to see and speak from an acknowledged, situated position with the “power of partial perspective” in the nature-culture borderlands that we all inhabit.

With the exception of Plumwood, most ecofeminism critiques maintain elements of essentialized dualistic categories of nature and culture, identified with woman and man, although they criticize the ways in which these are deployed by powerful patriarchal institutions, including science, to the detriment of nature and women (Merchant 1989; Shiva 1988 [1989]). Marxist and socialist feminists have maintained dualistic constructs of humans and nature, focusing on the gendered distribution of labor and property, though several works have complicated the use of nature and culture and note how they often enable hegemonic political and economic power (Katz 1998; Jackson 1993.

Feminist political ecology (FPE) scholars have countered the nature-culture binary through culturally and ecologically situated feminist critiques of science, sustainable development, and environmental injustices, in place and across places (Rocheleau, Thomas-Slayter, and Wangari 1996; Rocheleau 2008; Nightingale 2006; Hawkins and Ojeda 2011; Sundberg 2004; Harcourt 2009; Harcourt and Escobar 2005; Escobar 2008). Several works have moved beyond men and women, applying insights from feminist theory and practice to analyze the intersecting fields of power in specific contested ecologies (Mollett 2010).

Critical and poststructural nature-culture theorists across disciplines have also questioned nature-culture dualities on the basis of ethnographic research (Nash 2001), archival and oral accounts of environmental history (Braun 2008), social constructivism (Whatmore 2006; Braun and Castree 1998), and case studies of power in political ecologies. While much of the early work in political ecology left culture largely unexamined, feminist, poststructural, postcolonial, and decolonial political ecologies have embraced culture and challenged nature-culture dualisms (Rocheleau, Thomas-Slayter, and Wangari 1996; Blaser and Escobar, this volume). Proponents of STS and actor network theory (ANT) have also explored the cultures of science and its social construction(s) of nature (see for instance Haraway 1991a, 1991b; Latour 2005; Law 1992; Law and Mol 2002; Stengers 2000). Several ethnographic scholars have concluded that wild and domesticated are not fundamental and universal categories across all peoples, nor are nature and culture to be found always and everywhere (Strathern 1987; Croll and Parkin 1992; Descola and Palsson 1996). Similarly, Tim Ingold (2011)concludes that ways of life, of being, seeing, and doing, are not about fixed repertoires contained within symbolic systems of representation. He eschews culture and nature for “the dwelt-in-world,” which we know through immersion, encounter, process, sensibility, and becoming (Ingold 2000, 42). He notes that what we call cultural transmission occurs by cultivating habits and possibilities of attention and of “being alive to the world” (Ingold 2000, 2011).

What is made visible through these various polemics is the artificial separation of nature and culture by hegemonic, and often colonial, thought. What remains are some key questions about the different connections and relationships that make dwelling in the world possible. For instance, how are people connected to each other and to other beings/elements of the world? Social connections that have long been posited within social theory as hierarchical structures are increasingly characterized as “flat” social networks devoid of power. Labor-based understandings of human relationships to nature, in terms of raw material to be transformed, are giving way to metaphors of humans rooted in place(s). Visions of rhizomes, mushrooms, rooted networks, networked places, and relational territories are increasingly invoked to reconcile these dichotomous formulations with the complexities of the more-than-human world (Whatmore 2002, 2004; Rocheleau and Roth 2007; Escobar 2008; Massey in Harcourt et al. 2013).

The network, the web, and the rhizome are rapidly gaining over the tree as metaphor in the study of culture, nature, and technology. The transgression of the nature-culture binary requires a vision that does not see a focal, self-contained organism, human or otherwise, planted upon nature as substrate. Rhizomatic metaphors have become especially fashionable in social theory, as well as in technology studies and communications (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). The humble mushroom is perhaps ideal for purposes of thinking about culture(s) and the relationships of humans to other beings, whether in the case of rooted social movements (Rocheleau and Roth 2007) or explicit associations of people and other species (Tsing 2012; Rocheleau 2015). The actual organism, the thing called mushroom, is the living network below ground, and the thing we usually refer to as mushroom is only the fruiting body, which is an ephemeral “organ” of reproduction. It presents a visible expression that allows us to read the presence of the organism, though we then tend to conflate that fruiting body with the thing itself. That subterranean web of relations is what “powers” the ongoing development, performance, and result of visible, legible connections among humans, and among the Earth, humans, other beings, their artifacts, and their technologies—hence, culture.

Rooted networks (Rocheleau and Roth 2007) bring the material into assemblages of actors, while recognizing the importance of place and the rooting of all networks (that include humans) in the Earth. All networks go to ground somewhere, even if that ground is dispersed and networked in a web of sources. There is a need to ground network and assemblage-based visions to accommodate actually existing and emergent nature-cultures (see also Ingold 2011). These range from indigenous peoples and farming communities in specific ancestral lands to the contingent territorial roots of pastoralists, agropastoralists, and urban nomads who are at home, on the move, over vast regional homelands. Likewise, this encompasses the various rhizomic modes of “rooting” in the emergent urban, rural, and regional nature-cultures of the pluriverse.

“Pluriverse’’ has been invoked by many indigenous and decolonial thinkers, activists, and scholars to express the “coexistence of multiple interconnected worlds” (Escobar 1995 [2011], viii). While the Western academy credits William James (see Ferguson 2007) with the concept, we suggest that he codified, rather than invented, a phenomenon already alive in many cultures across place and time. The dictionary provides a pluralistic definition of “universe,” though James’s “pluralism” went beyond the common usage today. It evokes a sense of coexistence, simultaneity, and copresent realities, going beyond multiple epistemologies to multiple ontologies. Writing about such a pluriverse, decolonial thinkers Arturo Escobar, Marisol de la Cadena, and Mario Blaser suggest that we are actually talking about modernism as a reduction, collapsing the pluriverse into a single world where real politics is impossible and what passes for politics polices culture, while a rationalist, modernist science polices nature. The attempted hegemony of modernist “economy” seeks to govern both. It is a world of the pluriverse denied, of many worlds occluded to serve the interests of an aspiring (but always incomplete) dominant power structure. This “mainstream” globalized culture is built on one lie of universality, a second lie of invented and enforced duality between Nature and Culture, and a third lie of multiple domesticated versions of culture(s) as proof of difference to deflect recognition of (attempted) hegemony as well as the real diversity of multiple worlds.

Pluriversal thinking stands in opposition to Euro/capitalocentric constructs that reify difference and mask hegemony. It also contrasts with denials of difference such as those by David Harvey (1990), encapsulated by Don Mitchell (1995, 111)as “‘[c]ulture’ makes ‘others.’ ‘Others’ do not make ‘culture.’” Instead, the inversion of that same “othering” gaze has repeatedly made visible, and politically powerful, the multiple and overlapping cultures, including oppressed and oppositional groups within “the West” and globally, among “the rest” (Hall 1992). The reemergence of decolonial thought and practice and the rise of explicit cultures of resistance/culture(s) as resistance (Yudice 2007; Nash 2001; Simpson 2011) has roots in the work of Franz Fanon (1963), as well as in several waves of “Third World” and other liberation struggles throughout the world and the United States, including the Black Power movement, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and Chicano/Latino movements. Nationalist and identity-based politics of liberation derived in part from shared cultures of resistance and to some extent from cultures as resistance, though the language invoked peoples, races, and classes, in relation to land and freedom, rather than nature-cultures in more-than-human worlds.

New social movements, scholars, artists, and activists have brought decolonial, indigenous, and subaltern thinking into the emergence of a new liberation culture and politics, based on “decolonizing knowledge and reinventing power” (de Sousa Santos 2010; Hopkinson 1998, 2000, 2012), much of it linked to Earth, land, territory, and the more-than-human world. These demonstrate that “others” do make cultures, and choose to defend certain ways of being, in many (but not all) cases against capital, empires, authoritarian/totalitarian states, and other repressive patriarchies. La Via Campesina makes culture(s) and knowledge(s), along with the World Social Forum, the Zapatistas, the Indignados, Occupy, and a profusion of indigenous movements worldwide. While violent racial supremacists, militant patriarchal religious movements, and international corporations also make cultures, the presence and practices of liberatory social movements clearly demonstrate that cultures do not, of necessity, emanate from coercive power. They can also be powerful agents and advocates of emerging nature-cultures based on principles of social justice and ecological viability.

As Arturo Escobar notes, “Culture is political because meanings are constitutive of processes that, implicitly or explicitly, seek to redefine social power. When movements deploy alternative conceptions of woman, nature, development, economy, democracy, or citizenship that unsettle dominant cultural meanings, they enact a cultural politics” (Escobar 1998, 64). In fact, to some indigenous scholars like Brendan Hokowhitu (2009), such a cultural politics is enacted on and by indigenous bodies serving as sites of resistance. Various indigenous movements, too, conceptualize culture as the enactment of a radical politics of change. The “Idle No More” movement, in Canada, to protect lands and waters against tar sand extraction and mining is a contemporary decolonial indigenous movement that sees culture as political, and cultural practice as the enactment of political thought. For scholar-activists like Leanne Simpson, the revisioning of political thought from an indigenous way of being-in-relation-in-the-world implies a continual struggle against a culture of extraction, and for a creative culture of “continuous rebirth” (cited in Klein 2013). Here, a decolonial feminist understanding of culture emphasizes not only a reintegration of nature and culture but the decoupling of modernist and colonial interpretations of culture from its actual enactment as a site of political struggle to legitimate different ontologies/epistemologies of being in the world.

The reemergence of decolonial thinking is converging with other radical currents that question basic categories of knowledge and language as deeply steeped in Eurocentric, racist, sexist, classist, and heteronormative binaries, hierarchical assumptions, and patriarchal values and practices. Decolonial theorists are in conversation with pluriverse and feminist thinkers, and are coalescing with resurgent indigenous and alternative movements, under the umbrellas of world anthropology, decolonial theory, indigenous theories of liberation, and alter-globalization. Together, they treat nature-cultures as particular responses to colonial acts, on the one hand, and as existing also within acolonial space-times, on the other. The decolonial turn validates both the precolonial existence of multiple nature-cultures and the possibilities that particular existing nature-cultures provide for decolonization. Building on these decolonial visions, we see culture as the habit-forming practices and politics of connection and disconnection that shape, and are shaped by, the dynamic experiences of being-in-relation-in-the-world(s).

Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay