On the Domination of Nature — Reflections on Baudrillard’s “The Mirror of Production”

by Shaun Terry

Baudrillard is concerned that Marx defines people too simply according to their labor power. For Baudrillard, people should be liberated from the notion that their value comes from their power over nature. This kind of valuation was not always the case, as Baudrillard points out. Before the 18th century, humanity and nature gave each other meaning. But, Baudrillard says, “All this is shattered in the 18th century with the rise and ‘discovery’ of Nature as a potentiality of powers (no longer a totality of laws); as a primordial source of life and reality lost and recovered, repressed and liberated; and as a deed projected into an atemporal past and an ideal future.” Instead of the laws by which nature and humanity “could exchange their meanings,” nature becomes redefined in a relation of power. Now, nature appears as something to be mastered by humanity, as a source of tools, as Heidegger might put it. This is a radical transformation, in Baudrillard’s view. Baudrillard describes the transformation: “This rise is only the obverse of an event: Nature’s entry into the era of its technical domination. This is the definitive split between subject and Nature-object and their simultaneous submission to an operational finality.” Previously, nature and humanity had been coequals. Neither was previous to the other, neither more important. They mutually gave importance to each other. Now, the direction of humanity would be set as humanity became aware of its potential to master nature. Baudrillard continues to define the shift: “Nature appeared truly as an essence in all its glory but under the sign of the principle of production. Under the objective stamp of Science, Technology, and Production, Nature becomes the great Signified, the great Referent.” Now, instead of nature preserving a quality worth respecting and acknowledging in its difference from humanity, it lies open to its domination by humanity. Instead of giving significance to humanity, nature becomes a kind of secondary concern—merely instrumental to the desires of humanity. It has gone from being a signifier to solely a signified. It is acted upon and it is given significance through the acts of humanity. Baudrillard says, “It is ideally charged with ‘reality’; it becomes the Reality, expressible by a process that is always somehow a process of labor, at once transformation and transcription.” The process by which nature comes to be redefined is through the process of labor. Through labor, nature becomes the instrumental object that the subject encounters and uses for the subject’s purpose. Nature is exploited—transformed from one form to another, as it suits the subject—and nature’s redefinition is made legible through this act. In this way, nature is transformed as it is transcribed. Finally, Baudrillard adds, “Its ‘reality’ principle is this operational principle of an industrial structuration and a significative pattern.” Baudrillard’s final argument here is interesting. It reminds me of Deleuze’s multiplicity. As I understand the multiplicity, it is a system that follows a particular logic and is multiscalar. To tie it back to Baudrillard, what I mean is that Baudrillard is alluding to the way by which humanity’s dominance of nature comes to form a logic that is then followed when humans come to dominate other humans, as an example. Once nature has become the instrumental object for the human subject, then other humans, other humans’ labors, the products of other humans’ labors, and so on, become possible objects for dominations. After all, those are all constituent aspects of nature.