“That’s unnatural.” These words convey a judgment of a practice, a state of being, or a social arrangement; we hear them often, and likely even use them ourselves. To call something unnatural is to suggest that it is out of keeping with the natural of order of things and the way they ought to be. To render this judgment is to imply that no further debate, discussion, or argument is needed, because we take for granted that what is unnatural is to be avoided and rejected. Who can argue with biology or nature?
But what, exactly, is nature? On what basis do we evaluate whether something is natural or unnatural? Who gets to decide? And why do we consider this an important distinction to make? In this seminar, we will examine these questions as we work towards untangling how the concepts of “natural” and “unnatural” function in our society—and how they might function differently in other times and places. Our goal will be to denaturalize our understanding of nature. We will analyze how the naming of people, practices, and institutions as “unnatural” works to create and perpetuate various forms of difference and inequality in society, along the lines of gender, sexuality, race, class, the environment, and other categories. We will also examine how the concept of nature has been used in attempts to overcome inequality, specifically through the discourse of natural rights, and what are the possibilities and pitfalls of such approaches. This course encourages students to observe the world around them carefully and critically, so that they can be aware of and capable of responding to the ideologies that underlie their everyday experiences.