Nature and the irruptive violence of history

Historical thinking has long defined itself in part through opposition to the natural, in spite of periodic critical efforts to bridge the gap. Deeper in Western traditions of historical reflection are traces of modes of thought through which the distance between human history and nature writ large tends to collapse. Two thinkers not often placed in dialogue—Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin—both unearthed aspects of this subterranean current. Foucault's The Order of Things maps different moments of Benjamin's trajectory: Renaissance resemblance and the metaphysics of language, classical taxonomy and the baroque “mourning-play,” and modern history and commodity culture in the nineteenth century. Violence appears periodically as the irruptive and disruptive force that conditions the natural-historical and thus an anthropocentric history that derives from it: from post-Edenic Babel to geological cataclysm and corporeal transience to the Marquis de Sade, Karl Marx, capitalism, and total war. Without in any way succumbing to naturalism, that inverse of subject-centered instrumental reasoning, both Foucault and Benjamin considered the import of the natural-historical for the eventual articulation of contemporary historical thinking and in doing so contributed to the regeneration of natural history as a mode of thought.